The media is supposed to be in a crisis. In many ways it is. In the face of the massive change brought about by the digital revolution, many publications are struggling to find a viable business model.
The axis of the debate has surrounded whether publications should offer their content for free or put it behind a paywall.
It is said that the Times has found modest success with their paywall. Some other publications, including its sister paper the Sun, have had less success with that approach.
On the other side of the fence are the publishers who opted for the free model. They are primarily relying on advertising. For many of these publications, this has led them down a clickhole rabbit hole.
These websites churn out untold volumes of low-quality content with clickbait headlines. That poor quality content is then plastered in adverts. Then at the end of the article there is a list of tacky stories provided by Taboola. It is almost as if journalists got together and said, “What is the worst possible product we could offer?”
This was a cowardly response to the digital opportunity from those that mistook it for a threat. For these newspaper proprietors, their lack of conviction in their own product is coming back to bite them.
Some smarter publications are succeeding with one simple strategy: focusing on quality.
The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures, released today, suggest that three publications in particular are reaping the rewards for maintaining the quality of their output.
The Spectator are celebrating all-time high circulation figures. Their editor Fraser Nelson is attributing that to “a perfect storm of print and digital”. He notes that the Spectator is unusual in seeing growth in both its print and digital products.
The Economist has also seen its subscriptions rise. They attribute their recent success to a combination of sophisticated digital marketing and their “product offering of trusted analysis”.
Strikingly, Private Eye has also reached a 30-year high in circulation. That is despite the fact that it does not have a strong digital offering.
This shows that the bottom line is that quality counts.
Sadly, it seems that the majority of news publishers have not realised this. They have chased short-term numbers at the cost of damaging their brands in the long term.
The music industry went through a rocky period 15 years ago when the digital revolution derailed it. But by tweaking its business model, the music industry survived. It survived because people still fundamentally liked the product. People like the music.
Much of the the media industry seems to have failed to realise this basic of business in the digital era. Meet users’ needs, or they will simply go away.
The media brands that have undermined their reputations by using cheap clickbait techniques are the ones feeling the pain. Today’s ABC figures suggest that quality content is the key to survival.
It seems that the free versus paywall debate may well have been a red herring.