The survival of online journalism

Digital advertising can make visiting some online publications an incredibly frustrating experience. You often get bombarded by different advertisements, including pop-ups that cover the article you’re trying to read, distracting flashing banner ads, autoplay videos…the list goes on! There’s nothing more annoying than being unable to find the well-disguised x button to get rid of them, or even worse, accidentally clicking on the wrong part of the screen and being redirected away from your read.

While this can create an exasperating user experience, it’s a difficult dilemma for publishers. Digital advertising provides a critical source of revenue and is key to their survival. If readers have to put up with a few ads every time they want to read an article for free, is that a fair trade-off?

Before widespread use of the internet, we paid for our news by buying newspapers, yet when it moved online, it was made free for all to access. Journalist, David Barnett, likened this to a high street cake shop selling cakes to customers over the counter, but then setting up a website to give away cakes for free! He also points out that, “Once people get used to having something for nothing, it’s an uphill struggle to get them to accept it has any value.”

However, subscriptions and paywall models are proving successful for many national news sites as a way of generating revenue to support their journalism. But for now this alone isn’t enough. Worldwide blog comment hosting service, Disqus, conducted research to find out if and why people pay for news. Only 30.45% of respondents said that they had paid for online news content in the last year. When asked why, the top reasons were, ‘I want to read high quality content on topics I care about from a publication I like’, to ‘fund journalism’s role in society’ and to ‘support a publication’s mission.”

While the majority of readers don’t currently pay to access their news online, the annual Digital News Report from Reuters Institute and Oxford University this year showed that the rise of fake news could soon change that. The online survey of 75,000 people across 38 countries found that 55% said they were concerned about misinformation; a growing trend in many places despite the efforts of governments and social media firms to counter it. In the UK specifically, 70% of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘I am concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet’, up 12% on the previous year. With this in mind, is it going to become more likely that readers will pay to access their news from a trusted source?

The subscription model has certainly paid off for The Guardian. Guardian Media Group (GMG) recently reported that it has achieved its key financial goal for its core news business, Guardian News & Media (GNM), breaking even at an EBITDA operating level, with profits of £0.8 million. This is in stark contrast to its losses of £19m in 2017/18, and £57m in 2015/16, demonstrating the success of its three-year turnaround strategy. This is thanks, in part, to its paying readers; The Guardian now has over 655,000 monthly paying supporters, across subscribers, recurring contributors and members, and an additional 300,000 one-off contributors in the last year.

But do news sites that stick solely to digital advertising to fund their operations need to address their user experiences? While the advertising revenue helps the publication survive, if visitors aren’t sticking around to read its content because of a frustrating user experience, what is it really offering? And for any publications considering implementing a subscription model alongside their advertising, readers are unlikely to invest if their experience is being disrupted by flashing ads and pop-ups every two seconds.

As businesses, we spend a huge amount of time tweaking and perfecting our websites to improve the user experience we offer, from page load speed to navigation. Anything that could put a visitor off, disrupt their journey, or potentially impact conversion rates is treated as a big red flag. So, do online news sites need to pay more attention to the user experience they provide? In order to maintain solid commercial relationships, retain loyal readers, and perhaps even persuade them to support their journalism with a financial contribution, it’s certainly looking that way.

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