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After giving away content, how can media companies now make people pay?

By Maria Terrell

M.Terrell Consulting

Dallas, Texas, USA


My recent post “Instead of courting Millennials, should news media skip this generation?” started an online debate I feel we need to continue. After my blog post, Chris Sutcliffe with The Media Briefing responded with his own post, “No, news publishers shouldn’t be considering skipping the Millennial generation.”

Partly due to the word restrictions, my post was not as lengthy as it should have been to fully address the original question. However, with this posting, I feel we can continue the debate.

The Skimm has found a way to appeal to the Millennial audience by delivering content they want on a platform they use.
The Skimm has found a way to appeal to the Millennial audience by delivering content they want on a platform they use.

The current crux of the issue is what was repeated over and over at the INMA World Congress in New York in May of this year: “How do you close a door that’s been open so long?”

Allow me to elaborate.

As Mark Ritson, a professor at Melbourne Business School and Singapore Management University, stated during his presentation, the news media industry collectively shot itself in the foot when, at the 1994 World Editors Forum, it decided to offer content for free online.

From that moment forward, we set the value of our content at zero. Now, news media companies realise we have a generation completely unwilling to pay for our content, yet as both Sutcliffe and I stated, they are interested in quality news and do read our (free) content when searching for news.

Both blogs point out that Millennials use social media to find their news, which is about the vehicle to view our content, not the content. As Sutcliffe said, “There are two uncontested differences in how Millennials engage with news content, however: How they seek it out and how likely they are to pay for it.

The duopoly of Google and Facebook have the news media industry in a vice. They are not content creators. Instead, they are the ultimate editors.

Yet, between their algorithms (which no one can fully understand) and the vital necessity of our content to them, we’re clamouring to partner with them and have somehow taken the same value proposition as the WEF did in 1994 — free. (Insert the sound of the industry collectively face palming itself.)

Our most valuable assets — our quality journalism and news content — is being given away for free to the duopoly.

I believe news media companies are looking at Millennials like the unicorn generation that will save the industry. Where my original post fell short in clarifying — and I believe this could be true — is that it’s not in creating content for Millennials, but rather in finally changing our business models surrounding the open door of free content.

This change will go beyond Millennials to the new reality of how everyone is (or soon will be) consuming content, searching for news, and managing their new realities.

Millennials and so many others are willing to pay for memberships and subscriptions (to certain print products). However, just as my blog post “Understanding audience preferences versus reality” and Sutcliffe shared, “ … that might look like people become more likely to pay for print as they age and thus that Millennials will grow into valuing news, the reality is that these are attitudinal differences based on habits created by access to mobile devices.”

Creating platform solutions that provide the valuable content in the right package or delivery method is the key.

No one is paying for a “subscription” to your content. They’re paying for the delivery of your content in the way that suits them best.

INMA World Congress Brainsnack presenter Gerold Riedmann, editor-in-chief and managing director of Russmedia in Austria, asked the following two questions, which posed the hard questions surrounding not just the Millennial generation, but each generation:

“Will they ever pay for Kim Kardashian journalism? Have they ever paid for journalism?” (Again, it’s the packaging of the content and the delivery of it they’re paying for, whether it’s delivering it in print to your home or on an app on their iPad or behind a paywall online with video.)

With so many membership clubs booming — curating clothing memberships, coffee memberships, wine memberships, beauty product memberships, even “unknown” memberships providing deliveries of products that the member has no idea what they’ll be receiving until they open the box (Birchbox, FitFabFun, and others) — news media organisations need to be taking the same approach.

All the items in these memberships can be found elsewhere, and cheaper. The different is in the convenience, curation, and delivery of these products in a way the client wants.

As we are today, Millennials are trained to get us free — online, on social, or by search — when they’re searching for content. There are some news media companies that figured it out quickly, like The Skimm, which curates and delivers content to a specific audience and monetises it.

A recent Bloomberg article sheds some light:

“The Skimm has managed to do something its new media peers have struggled with: turning readers into paying customers. In April the company introduced an iPhone app, which, for US$2.99 per month, alerts readers — in the same voice as the newsletter — to important events, such as the day Google reported its earnings or when the new Gilmore Girls hits Netflix. ‘The Skimm isn’t just building a user base,’ says Rich Greenfield, a media analyst who was one of the Skimm’s first angel investors. ‘They’ve been keeping them engaged for years and years.’

The Skimm is taking our quality content, curating it, and delivering it in a Millennial style, across e-newsletters, a Web site, and an app (where the money is). News media organisations can take a page from this and StitchFix, and find curation and delivery (platform) vehicles for our content, giving audiences what they want. They’ll pay for it.

As Sutcliffe’s blog said, and I agree, “So, Millennials and news. In as much as the term ‘Millennial’ means anything, they’re engaged with news across many more platforms due to widespread mobile adoption, and if there’s a failure to monetise them it’s on the publishers’ side as a result of slow adjustments to digital publishing. Publishers simply can’t afford to wait until Millennials ‘come around’ to more traditional means of news distribution — they need to be out and actively experimenting on as many platforms as possible.”

Skipping the Millennial generation isn’t necessarily the point, but if we’re staying exactly as we are, yes, skip the Millennials. They’re not going to subscribe; they’re already consuming our content on someone else’s platform and subscribing to the memberships and products that deliver the experience they want on the platforms they prefer.

We’ve opened the door to our content, and the bigger issue is figuring out how to collectively pull it shut and put it on platforms and in ways audiences value enough to pay for.

About Maria Terrell

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