Can conspicuous consumption save the news business?

It’s a dire time for the news industry. Readers are flooding to social media for content, advertisers are moving with them and costs are being cut at a brutal rate in a desperate bid to meet falling revenue.

It is increasingly clear that business models that depend on amassing large audiences in order to provide a forum for advertising will always struggle against the “niche of one” audience that social media platforms can provide for advertisers.

There’s been lots of talk lately about ways to fund public interest journalism. One idea is to tax the online aggregators – Facebook and Google, primarily – that sell advertising against the news content of others to support news organisations. Another is to make news subscriptions or donations to its producers tax deductible. 

Both ideas are worth considering, but they do not abrogate the need for news organisations to seek better ways to draw revenue from consumers. 

(It is alarming that discussion of efforts to build a sustainable future for journalism seem reluctant to take this approach. Media Watch devoted a recent episode to “ask what can be done to save” public interest journalism without considering revenue from consumers, while a fine piece in The Monthly also had this blind spot.)

The bottom line is that news producers need to find a way to persuade consumers to part with their cash in order to access content.

As the Irish joke goes, if we are heading there we wouldn’t want to start from here. 

Two decades of free content has conditioned readers to believe they are entitled to access news without charge. Decent offerings from public broadcasters means there is always a solid alternative pipeline of free content. And social media platforms now own the relationship with many consumers, fostering a loyalty to itself as a conduit but creating a disloyalty to any single news outlet.

To succeed, news publishers will need to rethink the relationship they have with consumers.

A few weeks back the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its Digital News Report, a survey on the state of the industry. While the whole survey is interesting, one question in particular grabbed my attention. 

The survey was keen to find out why people choose to subscribe to an online news service. Here’s what it found:

But it is the options the survey didn’t offer that may be a key to making news commercially viable again.

It didn’t ask people if they subscribe because of how an outlet makes them feel about themselves. Or because of how subscribing to an outlet will shape the way other people think of them.

We all know that a news outlet offers a world view through which it interprets events, and overwhelmingly its consumers share that world view. (Few of us like having our world view challenged, although in my experience it is kinda fun.) 

But what if readers are not just choosing their news outlet because it reflects how they see the world, but because it reflects how they see themselves? In other words, people’s choice of news outlet is an extension of their personal identity, so that readers think of themselves as a “Daily Tele type” or a “Fin Review type” or a “Guardian type”.

Think of the way people buy other consumer goods, like cars. All perform the basic function of transport, and while there may be subtle performance differences between different models, many users have little awareness. Instead in large part a car choice is a manifestation of the buyer’s personal identity, whether you opt for a Mercedes to indicate a commitment to style, a Holden to indicate down-to-earth simplicity or a Volvo to indicate a commitment to family.

People are making consumption choices because of how it makes them feel about themselves and because of how other people perceive them. (The consumption-choice-as-personality-signifier is a well-worn trope of popular psychology, as this search can attest.)

News outlets have enormous brand equity built up in their mastheads. Most of us develop an affection for a masthead that goes beyond an intellectual engagement to become an emotional attachment. Inevitably we also form judgements about other people based on where they get their news. Think of how you perceive someone when you find out they get their news from The Spectator compared to someone else who heads to Junkee.

But this is where we get to the problem faced by the news industry. The consumption is not particularly conspicuous. The decision to subscribe or not subscribe to a particular news outlet is essentially a private matter between me and the publisher.

No one else will have the least clue where I get my news from, if anywhere at all. Which is great if I am concerned about privacy. But it is no good at all if I’m looking to consume conspicuously and signal to the world the kind of person I am. Sure, I can choose to share individual items of content through social media platforms, but in those cases my social media followers are more likely to infer things about me from the substance of the content than from its source.

So how about this. News outlets need to find a way to let subscribers show off their status as subscribers. There’s an analogue example of this on the streets of Melbourne right now. Spend an hour or two in Melbourne traffic and you’re bound to see a Triple R bumper sticker on a car (or bike!), showing off the driver’s status as a subscriber to probably the best community radio station in the country. Why do people choose to put the sticker on the window? It seems pretty clear that it signals to the world that the person behind the wheel identifies with the indie culture celebrated by the station.

Source: Twitter/@BikesRRR

What does this look like in a digital era? Hard to know for sure, but perhaps the social media platforms that are so much of the problem for the news industry could be part of the solution. What if there was a discrete space within a profile that allowed a user to list their outlets to which they subscribe? News publishers might even be able to offer a tick of authenticity to prevent fraud. Or what if every time a person shared a piece of news content on social media the platform vouched for the sharer’s status as a subscriber?

A relatively simple step like this could turn a private act of consumption into a conspicuous one. (It would also have the effect of outing non-payers as news freeloaders, creating a sense of shame around consuming without paying that is so far absent.)

News outlets would also need to rethink the way they market their product to subscribers. Rather than luring people based on the functional qualities of the product (breaking news, quality writers, etc) they could lure them based on the ability to attach themselves to the personality of the masthead. In other words, this would allow publishers to unlock some of the brand equity.

Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not. But in an era where online cents are failing to replace lost print dollars, news outlets need to get smarter about how they attract revenue. Current strategies are not working, so perhaps it’s time to try something new.


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