5 reasons rolling news, reader revenue don’t mix

By Ben Whitelaw

European Journalism Centre

London, United Kingdom


More and more news organisations are moving toward a mixed revenue model with a paid-for element.

From 171 European news organisations studied for a Reuters Institute survey last year, 46% operated some sort of pay model (freemium, metered, or hard paywall). In the United States, 15 of the most visited newspaper sites have some form of paywall.

However, few have given much consideration into what this new customer relationship means for their content strategy. They continue to produce the kind of journalism they’ve always done, which was created and distributed to drive traffic and accrue advertising revenue. Quick turnaround breaking news, social media reaction stories, and cheap lists proliferate.

Rolling news might be the trend, but that doesn’t mean that’s the right content strategy.
Rolling news might be the trend, but that doesn’t mean that’s the right content strategy.

This failure to reconsider content strategy alongside the business model represents a missed opportunity. So, if you represent a news organisation looking to move to a paid-for model, you might want to consider stepping away from rolling news for the following reasons:

1. Fast is never fast enough.

With an increasingly global news agenda and newsrooms limited by resources, it’s difficult to cover everything, everywhere, in a timely way. Satisfying the expectations of paying customers is difficult, even if you have extensive resources.

The New York Times found this when it did a small study of subscribers in 2015. The company found two types of needs: “Early followers” tended to track breaking news on Twitter but were frustrated when they had to read it all over again when it was published on the news site. “Latecomers,” by contrast, wanted background and context and didn’t care for speed at all.

The lesson? Publishing something in between only served to disappoint both groups.

There are some areas where speed is important — stock market news, for example — and business-focused news providers like the Financial Times (UK) and The Wall Street Journal (US) have made this a focus of their output and reaped the subscription rewards.

But it’s telling that one of the best consumer-focused rolling news products, CNN’s Breaking News, was closed in 2016 because it couldn’t find enough revenue to sustain itself.

2. It’s not conducive to informing consumers.

Every day, an estimated 100 million pieces of information are published to the Web in English alone. One issue of The New York Times is reportedly packed with more information than the average 19th-century individual encountered in a lifetime. It has become so difficult for consumers to process the amount of information out there that futurists are advocating “selective ignorance.”

The value of news organisations used to be that they filtered what was significant. Now they are a major contributor of noise. Last year, Mail Online, the Daily Mail’s Web site, published 244,000 articles alone. If each story was 200 words in length and read at the average speed of 130 words per minute, it would take a user 37 weeks non-stop (without sleep) to consume them all.

Consumers need help to understand the forces at play, not more hurdles to jump over.

3. Differentiate from the free competitors.

If you’re charging for access to content but you can get access to similar information on other sites or on networks like Twitter, the perception that your rolling coverage is worth paying for is likely to be limited.

An academic paper in 2015 called this “perceived worthwhileness.” That is the combination of many interrelated factors making consumers believe a product to be of worth, including, time spent with the product, situational fit, and price, among other factors.

The Times and The Sunday Times (for which I worked for seven years until June this year) launched a paywall in 2010 but, from 2015, moved away from rolling news and instead published three times a day. The idea was users would come to The Times to find out what stories meant, not just that they happened.

Only a handful of readers even noticed, and the titles passed 500,000 subscribers in July.

4. It’s affecting users’ health.

Users are increasingly torn between wanting to be informed and being overwhelmed.

A survey earlier this year by the American Psychological Association found more than half of respondents were stressed by news and the “checking cycle” they’ve adopted to keep up to speed. Many sites experience a bump in traffic around 10 p.m. when people check what’s happened before they go to bed, which can’t be good for their sleep patterns.

Oliver Burkeman, an author and columnist for the Guardian in the United Kingdom, recommended reading a print newspaper or using “read later” apps to help contextualise the maelstrom of news and avoid “headline anxiety.”

Whether you operate a paid-for model or not, organisations can help users out by publishing fuller articles, less frequently.

5. Changing the newsroom is easier without it.

Constantly updating digital products leaves little time for a news organisation to adjust ways of working and review progress.

By stepping out of the rolling news cycle, editors have more time to do increasingly important jobs such as reviewing analytics data, working with other stakeholders in cross-departmental initiatives to drive subscription or membership, or attending training on new ways to tell stories that people will pay for.

Early digital players such as De Correspondent (the Netherlands) and Zetland (Denmark) have developed paid-for models without promising to report on everything while fresh start-ups such as Tortoise Media (UK) and Kinzen (Ireland) are taking a slow journalism approach in the hope they can capture a customer base that wants less, not more.

Your organisation might consider doing the same.

About Ben Whitelaw

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