Do news ethics change when subscribers are paying the bills?

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


As media strategy shifts to one centered on paying subscribers, news media companies face a series of ethical dilemmas ranging from the relationship with readers to the ease of unsubscribing.

George Brock, a professor of journalism at City, University of London, and a former managing editor of The Times, changed the dynamic of today’s INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London by going beyond the bottom line or best practices or audience data. Instead, he talked about doing what’s right.

Brock and INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota co-authored last year’s INMA report, “The Evolving Role of Newsrooms in the Reader Revenue Model.” Among the things he learned doing research for the report is this: “Readers who pay will tend to feel they have a right to tell you very forcefully what they think.”

More than that, they have economic power. They can stop their subscription.

“That puts you not exactly at the mercy but in the firing line of strong currents of opinions — currents that are sometimes accelerated and amplified by social media. Strong currents like #MeToo.”

George Brock, professor of journalism at City, University of London, had some ethical questions for the INMA audience on Thursday.
George Brock, professor of journalism at City, University of London, had some ethical questions for the INMA audience on Thursday.

He gave the more than 200 attendees at the summit several ethical questions to consider:

An unexpected #MeToo moment

An reporter for a weekend magazine interviews a young, rising rock star. During the conversation, the singer says she was sexually abused years before. She does not identify her abuser but gives enough details for the reporter to determine who it is. He runs the name by her, and she doesn’t tell him he’s wrong. At one point in time, this was a legal dilemma for the reporter and the company. Now, many subscribers hold strong opinions for and against naming the abuser. 

Most in the INMA audience raised a hand that the abuser should not be named.

Here’s how the reporter handled it:

“During the interview, she revealed specifics about a man who once abused her. She is 46 now, but the weight never lifts; in her e-mail to me, she writes that she “woke up in a cold sweat” when thinking about naming him. Her secret, therefore, will remain just that.” 

“You’re going to have to look in different ways and articulate a slightly different relationship with your paying readers,” Brock said. “They will probably, as time goes on, disagree very forcibly. They can potentially enforce penalties. So be careful when you use the phrase, ‘We listen to our readers.’ Be absolutely sure you know what you mean in practice when you’re doing this.”

Trump, The New York Times, Russia 

The New York Times spends a lot of journalistic effort covering U.S. President Donald Trump. And it enjoyed a “Trump bump” after he was elected. 

Jill Abrahamson, former executive editor at The Times, said this about the situation in 2019:

“Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for The Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative. They drove big traffic numbers and, despite the blip of cancellations after the election, inflated subscription orders to levels no one anticipated.”

“How do we draw the line between being close to your readership and saying it’s our mission to be fair, objective, accurate, honest?” Brock asked. “I don’t think there’s a template for this. But what I am clear about is the top of the company, business and editorial, must understand how they are going to handle these things. There may be limits.”

Should it be easy to unsubscribe from your newspaper?

Most in the room said yes. Piechota continued the question, asking if the companies had made it easy yet. Not many affirmed they had.

While the data shows making unsubscribing more difficult keeps more subscriptions, is it worth it? 

“You are trying to organise a lifetime relationship with a subscriber,” he said. “Ideally, you want them to like you. But you also want them to trust you. If you make it as difficult as possible, are they going to like you and trust you?” 

Brock asks news media leaders to consider:

  • Are you selling a commodity or a service?
  • Are you customer-centric or revenue led?
  • Are you clear about where and when the journalistic mission overrules commercial imperative?

“The dilemmas are going to get more numerous, quite possibly more difficult,” he said. “It’s a really good idea to have a decision-making system and some mission by which you can judge the questions that arise that haven’t come up yet. The foundation of the business is the perceived value of the journalism. If you decide one of these questions by breaking that rule, I can pretty much guarantee there is going to be trouble.” 

Class adjourned.

About Dawn McMullan

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