Despite what you may have heard about the “failing New York Times,” the newspaper had a bang-up year in 2017. Digital-only subscriptions to the Times jumped 46 percent in 2017 and overall subscription revenue eclipsed $1 billion for the year. In fiscal 2017, meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal added 300,000 digital subscriptions.
On the other hand, we’ve seen the public perception of some newer media properties slide. A University of Missouri survey of consumers last year found that Occupy Democrats, BuzzFeed and Breitbart were the least-trusted news sources. Atop the list of the most-trusted was The Economist, whose subscriptions rose 30.8 percent in 2015. The Economist is on a mission to double its circulation profits by 2020.
What we’re seeing is a flight to quality. Facebook’s latest “friends and family” algorithm tweak has watered down the effect of clickbait headlines. Though there’s still a market for such fare on Google News, Google itself has recently announced a $300 million commitment to support quality news outlets. That initiative includes Subscribe With Google, a feature that will let readers subscribe to news sources via their Google accounts. Welcome back to the age of subscription-based news.
Back to the future
The earliest American newspapers were subscription based because they were outgrowths of political parties. But mass printing technology after the Civil War prompted the rise of cheap newspapers distributed in the cash-and-carry method by newspaper boys.
In this environment, the most sensationalistic headlines sold the most papers. Truth was irrelevant, because the idea was to win the day’s sales. Such yellow journalism led to the Spanish American War. In the 1890s, the Adolph Ochs-led New York Times countered the spread of yellow journalism by promoting his paper as the opposite: a sober publication that emphasized truth over sensationalism.
Sound familiar? The digital equivalent of shouting newsboys is the flurry of clickbait headlines on Facebook and Google. But now Facebook has choked off the supply and Google is at least taking steps to weed out fake news and promote the idea of subscriptions rather than impression-based news sources.
Great story, but is it true?
Once again, our news sources appear to be party-run, if not in name then in spirit. Democrats don’t trust Fox News and Republicans don’t trust MSNBC. In truth, most of us understand that both outfits tend to present a biased interpretation of events rather than objectivity.
One offshoot of the fake news crisis is that there’s more skepticism for unknown news brands. While the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal make mistakes, people tend to realize that stories from both are much more likely to be true. But people are now less willing to give the benefit of the doubt to stories from news organizations they don't recognize. In 2015, you might have seen a headline in your news feed from an obscure source and thought “great story.” In 2018, the default is “Great story. But is it true?”
We’re wiser than we were a few years ago. Most of us no longer take any web-based news at face value unless it’s attached to a brand we trust. This, of course, tilts the advantage to incumbents, but newcomers can make their mark with accurate reporting and great storytelling that’s uninfluenced by click-through and share rates. The good news is that we’re working towards a baseline of truth that will curtail the corrosive atmosphere of fake news. The bad news is, if you want that truth, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Todd Barrish is founder and president of Indicate Media, a digital public relations agency located in downtown NYC.