Idea: Could a “Basic Cable” Model Solve the Newspaper Industry’s Woes?

Since the advent of the Web, the newspaper industry has struggled with declining subscribers and plummeting revenue.

The failure of the mainstream media, and growing threats from fake news and partisan news outlets, is not only a risk to the newspaper industry (whether paper or completely digital), but is also a threat to the checks and balances that make Democracy work. Without a well-funded and independent fourth estate there is really nobody left in a position take on powerful corporations, governments, and politicians, and call them to task. Without a strong, free and independent press, it’s open season on truth, and corruption runs free.

In an editorial, on the problem of fake news and the need for professional journalism, Mark Thompson, CEO and President of the New York Times, writes:

I know that if Dean Baquet and Arthur Sulzberger were here, they would say what I am about to say: which is that what we stand for, now more than ever, is toughminded, independent journalism edited and delivered without fear or favor. Investigative journalism, properly resourced, holding powerful institutions and individuals to account. Great international journalism, faithfully reporting events happening in every part of a troubled world. We want every story we report, every column of opinion we publish, to be worth paying for.

But what’s the solution? Mark Thompson believes that perhaps using reason to convince people to subscribe will help. In his above cited editorial, he pleads with the reader,

It’s like any quality product. If you want real journalism, you as a consumer will have to pay for it. So subscribe. Subscribe to your local paper, or The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, or, if you’re feeling particularly flush, to all of the above.

But don’t rely on someone else – big advertisers, Silicon Valley, Santa Claus – to step in to save the day. Real journalism is vital to our democracy, and it has to be paid for. If not, it will largely disappear and leave the field open for Pizzagate, and that zombie army of illegal voters, and all the rest of it.

If you as a citizen are worried about fake news, put your money where your mouth is and pay for the real thing.  Thank you.

But this will not work.

The majority of people who are willing to subscribe already do. The people who don’t want to, don’t care, prefer to get the same news for free somewhere else, or who prefer to get partisan or fake news, are not going to subscribe.

So what is the solution?

One solution is to stop giving away news for free. That’s a double-edged sword however – because by shutting out free readers, it immediately reduces ad sales, visibility and reach for news outlets. Unless there are enough paying subscribers to fill the void, what little revenue remains is then at risk.

But there might be a better solution in sight. One that has been proved to work in another medium, cable TV.

In cable TV everyone is used to paying for “Basic Cable” and “Premium Cable” bundles. For a singly monthly subscription fee, they can access hundreds or even thousands of channels. Then for additional a la carte fees they can add on special bundles for sports, international programming, etc.

Why not apply this model to the news industry?

Here’s the idea:

  1. Create a “Basic News” and a “Premium News” subscription bundle.
    • Basic News is a single priced subscription that gets the reader unlimited access to the top 100 print news outlets.
    • The ranking metric to determine which publications are in the top 1000 could be print circulation, or it could be some other metric.
    • Premium News would be an a la carte add-on bundle for a set of 100 additional Premium Outlets not included in Basic. These would be higher priced outlets for example.
  2. The price of Basic and Premium would have to be within the range that a consumer could afford, and it has to be painless and largely ubuquitous.
    • Why not just include it as part of everyone’s cable bill or Internet bill?
  3. For this to work, all participating news outlets have to ONLY allow subscribers to pay via this system, and they have to stop giving away free news content entirely. This requires strict compliance by all participating news outlets, otherwise the wall breaks for all of them.
  4. Consumers would have a single sign-on to their bundle, hosted by a third party that provides the bundle billing system – which would be used via an API by all participating outlets.
  5. News outlets participating in a bundle would receive a pro-rata share of the subscription dollars for their bundle based on how much subscriber traffic they garner in a period via the single sign-on analytics.

That’s it! Pretty simple.

No micro payments, no consumers having to subscribe separately to hundreds of outlets. No confusion, no headache, no obstacles at the time of consuming content.

Nobody has to think about paying for anything, it’s seamless and automatic and happens behind the scenes, just like cable TV.

This could truly solve the media’s problems and it’s probably a great business idea and business model for someone in a position to bring it about.