Wallets get opened

“It seems my generation — often seen as embodying the worst of the information age — could well be at the forefront of making this much-needed correction in the media industry.”

Since the first days of the internet, consumers have generally taken for granted that content is free (the creator of the popup ad even regrets that his otherwise irritating brainchild contributed to this expectation). Now, as the ad-focused revenue model founders, people start to rethink the importance of journalism in a dark political climate, and information-overloaded consumers increasingly seek quality control, publishers are taking a cue from the likes of Netflix and Hulu and betting that customers will be willing to pay either for specialized content or for curation.

In part, we have President Donald Trump to thank for this shift. The more Trump relentlessly attacks the media, the more Americans are reminded that they can’t take a thriving free press for granted. Famously, The New York Times, repeatedly disparaged by the commander-in-chief as “failing,” has reported record subscriptions since Trump took office. Moreover, consumers are acutely aware that despite real failures on the media’s part in recent years, it’s journalism that uncovered the biggest scandals of the day, from the Billy Bush tape to Tom Price’s private jet usage to the child molestation allegations that changed the course of a Senate race just a few days ago. That public service, readers seem to have concluded, is worth paying for.

But it’s not just mainstream political journalism that’s benefiting from this shift, and it’s certainly not just a reaction to the president. A longer-term desire for experts to help filter through the noise has been apparent for years. Politico discovered that with its Pro verticals more than half a decade ago. Today, niche outlets covering everything from national security to chemistry to college sports are finding that users are eager to access specialized content — especially if it’s for less than the price of their Netflix subscription. Services like Scroll are experimenting with offering a curated (and ad-free) bundle of stories for a monthly fee. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the phenomenon, highlighting the case of Bill Bishop, who generated $100,000 in a single day when he moved to monetize his well-read newsletter on China. My own publication, War on the Rocks, has a successful membership program for national security professionals that gives them access to a members-only podcast on international affairs and a forum where they can engage in private with others in their field.

In 2018, I predict we’ll see more users paying both for mainstream journalism and for specialized content. This material will get more specific and granular as publications think through the technical challenges and opportunities — for instance, perhaps outlets will soon allow readers to pay specifically for their favorite columnists. Or publications might double down on the promise of email newsletters, another potential source of subscription revenue, by finding ways to improve automatically curated newsletters, making them a more desirable and lucrative product without the labor-intensiveness.

It’s heartening that millennials, in particular, are a crucial part of the paying-for-news trend. It seems my generation — often seen as embodying the worst of the information age — could well be at the forefront of making this much-needed correction in the media industry.

Usha Sahay is managing editor of War on the Rocks.

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