Whether in the print era or the digital age, the core function of journalism has always been for public service: a way to educate, uplift, empower, and inform communities. Public service journalism offers content and context about the issues communities face in common. During the ongoing pandemic and recovery efforts, public service digital journalism has seen a historic, pivotal global moment.
Sheetal Vyas, founding executive director of the International Fund for Public Interest Media, told the United Nations, “It’s actually very hard to think of a time in recent history when [public] access to trustworthy information has been more important.”
As communities question their confidence in news media and face extensive international challenges, public service journalism is a space where publishers can reassert the value and veracity of their work overall. Public service journalism presents an entry point for publishers to start–and keep–stronger relationships with readers at each stage of the subscription funnel, and its revenue generation.
Subscriber acquisition: public service journalism and the paywall
The digitization of news accelerated dramatically in the last year, and this has forced publishers to respond with updated business strategies and models. Publishers are combining revenue models and collecting first-party data through subscriptions as essential parts of evolving with the digital journalism era.
However, one of the biggest challenges is how to acquire–and especially retain–these subscribers. Over half of global readers are now willing to pay for their news, and younger readers make up one of the largest potential market segments for publishers in the digital subscriptions economy. The challenge is for publishers to determine strategies that move this interest into ongoing action, especially for digitally intelligent young readers.
Readers care about the kinds of content and experiences publishers offer, and this is certainly influenced by editorial decisions and advertising experiences. However, it is also influenced by paywall strategies. Paywall strategies must consider which kinds of audiences will respond to subscriptions offerings placed in different digital contexts.
When should publishers offer content for free, and when should they acquire data submissions or payments in order to access content? And should these strategies change from audience to audience?
These strategy questions exemplify ways the news media industry–and many other industries with it–has shifted from brand-centric to audience-centric selling. Subscriptions power much of that shift. While other types of journalism may need more sophisticated strategies to attract readers and balance bottom lines, public service journalism that’s offered freely is also uniquely positioned to provide easy value for reaching a broader group of readers. These readers can then be funneled into more quality subscriber relationships once they have benefited from the public service journalism pieces that have already pulled them in.
While most media organizations lowered paywalls for public service journalism during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, some suggest the strategy may have business benefits long-term.
Journalism lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School Arionne Nettles argues that the strategy can help news businesses think more creatively about reader relationships: “I think that what we’ve seen, and will hopefully see more of, is a mixed-model approach where some premium content is under a paywall and content that is a public service is free.” Independent tech and media journalist, Simon Owens, similarly believes the digital strategy could benefit branding efforts and public relations.
All of these efforts can feed towards acquisition strategies at the top of the subscription funnel. Public service journalism can serve as the point of value for readers that introduces them to a news media brand and moves them towards a paid subscription.
Build stronger reader relationships, even behind a paywall
Certainly, publishers must center audiences in their editorial and digital strategies to acquire readers, and this may mean offering public service journalism without a paywall as a way to build trust for the subscriptions funnel. More readers can be reached in this way.
However, unlike the focus on scale that has driven most of the news media industry for some time, retaining subscribers in the digital ecosystem requires a focus on quality of readerships, not just quantity of readers. This has moved brands to shift from talking at readers to engaging with readers: public service journalism, even behind a paywall, is a prime place to build this dialogue and retain subscribers.
Public service journalism can be understood in various ways, but it certainly must ask a broad range of questions in order to truly serve the public. Whereas sports journalism or other types of journalism may be able to offer readers whatever they want to hear, public service journalism by nature has to think in more nuanced terms about its reader relationships and its journalism. In many ways, public service journalism forges a conversation with its readers.
Communications and media researcher Jackie Harrison wrote for a 2019 University of Oxford report:
“[Unless public service] is regarded as consisting of nothing other than giving the public what it claims it wants, another level of consideration needs to be engaged with when discussing public service journalism: the fact that public service journalism has certain features that non-public service journalism does not have. Importantly, these features of public service journalism are independent of how the service is economically funded or politically regarded. They are, however, dependent on how the public is conceived of and how it should be served.”
Because public service journalism must naturally concern itself with both breadth and depth of content that centers its readers, it’s also a natural way to concern itself with quantity and quality of subscriber relationships. How does the newsroom understand “the public” it reaches digitally, and how can the newsroom best serve these digital audiences? What builds media trust, and what can keep it? Which topics need to be discussed in common, and how?
Questions like this force publishers to more closely examine editorial content for their readers, newsroom diversity to accurately report on stories impacting their reader communities, technological experiences for both subscriptions and ads, and the brand’s digital function in their readers’ lives among the hundreds of other news organizations subscribers could choose from online. Publishers won’t understand their readers’ needs in any of these areas if they are not actively engaged in a conversation–both communicating and listening. Public service journalism does just that.
Because public service journalism must center readers and ask deeper questions about journalistic goals, news media brands will likely know they are offering real, substantive value to their readers when their public service journalism performs well behind a paywall. As much as quality public service journalism can be an acquisition strategy to attract readers broadly, it can also be a subscription retention strategy that helps publishers build reader relationships in deeper ways.
A profitable path forward for publishers
Trust in the news media increased during the peak of the pandemic, and some argue this is because the pandemic motivated newsrooms to increase empathy and humility towards their audiences and strengthen the complexity of their stories. Both of these dynamics required going beyond the sensationalized content that has become standard online. Publishers have had to adapt in order for digital journalism to serve the public during this global crisis. The circumstances pushed the industry forward, and this could continue well beyond the pandemic.
Editor for several tech and media brands Pete Pachal wrote in early 2020 that service journalism was having ‘a moment.’ He explained, “While service journalism shares the same standards of truth and fact-finding as regular reporting, it requires a different approach. The biggest shift: The reporter’s lens moves from the subject to the reader.”
The subscriptions funnel is no different. It too requires a lens focused on the reader from the points of interest to acquisition to retention. As news brands prioritize their subscriptions revenue strategies post-pandemic, they should consider that the performance health of their public service journalism may arguably signal the health of the organization’s subscription funnel overall.