Digital Newspapers:
A few rays of hope

Digital papers for sale

Perhaps you heard: Newspapers have had a tough time making the transition from print to digital. The good news is that for some papers that’s starting to turn around.

When digital publishing first became a thing, most papers made content available online for free. The idea was to supplement printed editions, the industry’s mainstay. What the industry failed to figure out in time was that printed editions wouldn’t remain the mainstay for much longer. By the time it was clear that the future lay in digital publishing, the public had grown accustomed to free digital content, and no newspaper was eager to be the first to start charging. Nor did it help that revenue from online advertising sales paled in comparison to what papers had charged for printed editions. 

The industry underwent drastic cuts as a result. Layoffs were commonplace. Investigative journalism departments were among the first to go, with fact-checking departments close on their heels. Some papers merged, some scaled down, some traded reporting for pandering, and not a few closed their doors. The Huffington Post debuted a new model: It was an online paper that had no print edition, and the bulk of its content was either aggregated or contributed by unpaid writers. At the same time, everyone else who wanted to publish a news blog or aggregation site could easily do so—and pretty much everyone did. None of these developments did much for the quality, much less the reliability, of reporting. 

But legit digital news publishing is starting to turn around, for a number of reasons. Some of the reasons are positive, and some are disconcerting.

I’ll start with the positive reasons. Over time, newspapers have figured out how to charge for digital content. Whether or not you’re a fan, The Washington Post provides a good case study. The Post gambled that there were still people out there who would pay for its style of reporting. To help those people along, the Post began letting readers click to a limited number of articles per month at no charge. On, say, the tenth click-through, readers were asked to register and, in time, fork over for a subscription. And in a tactic lifted directly from the old print days, the Post offered free, limited-time digital subscriptions in hopes readers would like the content and pay to continue receiving it. 

The Post received a considerable a boost when Jeff Bezos purchased it in 2013. For one thing, Bezos had a bit of capital to work with. For another, you probably know that Bezos has connections with Amazon.com, and he used them to extend tempting Post offers to Amazon Prime members. At the same time, he gave Kindle owners and Kindle app users a free six-month Post subscription. To keep impatient readers from bailing, he cut page-load time by 85 percent. More recently, the Post has begun publishing all of its articles to Facebook’s Instant Articles, which quickly uploads articles to Facebook mobile apps. 

All of which appears to be working. Post subscriptions are on the rise. Meanwhile, other papers are taking note and show promise of rebounding

There is now a growing opportunity in the form of people uninterested in a full subscription but willing to pay, say, 25 cents for an article here or there.

Until now, per-article sales for digital publications haven’t been financially viable, however, applications like Blendle offer hope. Business Insider reports: 

There are reasons for optimism—many publishers have bought into an app called Blendle, which aggregates content and makes payment more frictionless. And Blendle has seen modest gains since launch, which indicates that micropayments could gain traction under the correct circumstances. If a giant, like Apple, Google, Facebook, or another platform where customers both have existing news and payment relationships, were to take the challenge on, its value could begin to increase. 

On the more disconcerting side is the thought that digital journalism’s rebound may in part be due to the rise of fake news and irresponsible headlines. Increasing awareness of fake news may be driving a growing number of readers to reliable news. Also on the disconcerting side is today’s polarized politics. While it drives some people to feedback loops, it may make others willing to shell out for sources with established bona fides. 

I hope we see more and more responsible digital newspapers become fully viable. The day may yet come when they completely supplant paper editions. Who knows: Future generations may ask why we call that thing on a smartphone or tablet “the paper,” much as today’s rising generation isn’t quite sure why we call using the keypad on a smartphone “dialing.”

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