Are 200 million college-educated people “who read in English” an untapped media market? Ben Smith’s statement, about the potential audience for a global news start-up he will launch with former Bloomberg Media chief executive officer Justin Smith, was widely mocked. Because it sounded pompous and impossible. (In a memo sent to professional contacts, and obtained by Axios, Justin Smith called it “the most ambitious journalism experiment in decades.”)
For perspective, The New York Times, Ben Smith’s most recent employer, averaged a little more than 85 million unique visitors in November 2021, according to Comscore, with about 8.4 million digital subscribers (and that includes subscriptions to its Games, Cooking and Wirecutter products). Just over 1 million of those subscribers are outside the U.S. The company has set a goal of 10 million subscribers by 2025.
But, in a continually splintering media ecosystem, where the top Substack newsletters have less than 100,000 subscribers, dominance is no longer the point. (Even AOL still has more than 1 million paying customers, according to one estimate.) In the DIY new media economy, there is more than one yardstick for measuring success.
“A lot of the larger news outlets [are focused] more on maintaining their herd, not growing it,” said Chris Stirewalt, the former longtime politics director at Fox News, who was fired after the network’s 2020 election coverage.
“And it’s about making sure that your viewer or reader stays habituated, stays addicted. So in an era of intense competition, retention becomes the most important goal.”
But the firehose of content that is the over-riding characteristic in today’s media ecosystem combined with a near-nadir in trust has led to a burnout among many former readers.
“There are a lot of people who have opted out completely, and if not completely who have moved to the extreme margins of informational rejection,” continued Stirewalt. “It’s not that they’re misinformed. It’s that they’re intentionally uninformed. This is both a problem and an opportunity for us as a country.”
The Smiths — and a lot of other people — think so, too. In his memo, Justin Smith positioned the new entity, which is supposed to launch by year’s end and will not be venture-funded but rely on subscriptions and premium advertising, as a “modern, general-interest, global news business…that serves unbiased journalism to a global audience.”
Consumers have been paying for content since the invention of the printing press — and millions still pay hefty monthly fees for the cable bundle. But newspapers gave away their content in the early days of the internet, when most of their readers still had so-called print subscriptions. The rise of the streaming services has re-reinforced the reality of monthly content fees.
“The era of subscription media might be a reallocation of spending from things like local newspaper subscriptions and cable TV subscriptions to things like Substack,” noted Michael Socolow, a media historian and professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.
But if consumers have become habituated to the paywalls essential to sustainability, they have not exactly embraced them on a mass scale. Globally, just 17 percent of users worldwide paid for any online news in 2021, according to the Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report, which measures digital news consumption in 46 markets. In the U.S., the rate is 21 percent, which is relatively high. In the U.K., where free news content is still widely available, it’s a mere 8 percent. Although 2021 marked a 2 percent uptick in overall news subscriptions compared to the previous year, that’s still a sliver of the global population.
And of those who do pay for news, most have only one subscription, and that one subscription is generally a large national news brand, reinforcing what the survey authors characterize as a “winner takes most” dynamic. The oxygen suck that was the Trump administration boosted print subscriptions and TV news ratings in America. But Trump’s loss in 2020 and, critically, his de-platforming from Facebook and Twitter, has forced a pivot at national news organizations at a time when the industry is continuing to splinter and America’s ideological chasm widens.
As the Wall Street Journal detailed in a recent report, the Amazon Inc.-owned Washington Post is grappling with “a sharp decline in online readership.” Leadership at the Post gathered last December to confront the Post’s prospects in the post-Trump era, including the blunt assessment that the company’s “paid product is not attractive to younger people,” who are more likely to get news from social channels such as Instagram and TikTok. The article cited online readership from last October that showed year-over-year monthly unique readers declined 28 percent. At Politico, which last year was acquired by Axel Springer for more than $1 billion, U.S. monthly unique readers for the same period fell 48 percent. The Rupert Murdoch-owned Journal is also embroiled in an internal editorial debate about the need to appeal to a wider, more diverse readership, according to one account.
The financial contraction at the heart of the information industry has descended on a parallel track with extreme polarization across the electorate and in Washington, where bipartisanship has gone from virtue to kiss of death. The current media ecosystem has gorged itself on the old industry adage “if it bleeds it leads.” Primetime on cable news is a perpetual outrage loop. Careful reportage has been supplanted by reactionary blather and anchors emoting.
The most-watched shows on the biggest cable news networks (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) serve up a near steady diet of hysteria, with varying degrees of fact-based talking points. Meanwhile, the opinion pages at the largest legacy news operations (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal) may offer a modicum of nuance, but the overall tone is consistent of a particular world view.
“The legacy brands use the most effective tools to maintain their audience, which is fear and hate,” said Stirewalt, who writes a column and hosts a podcast for The Dispatch, which has one of the top newsletters on Substack. (He’s also writing a book, “Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back,” due out from Hachette imprint Center Street this August.)
“If you are a normal person,” he said, “it would be reasonable to conclude that proportionality is a thing of the past, that all news is political and that [the media] are powerfully full of s–t. As a consequence, a rational choice could be seen as opting out and it’s too bad.”
As political brinksmanship has intensified, so has widespread distrust in institutions, government and the media. In just five years, the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in national news organizations has cratered, from 70 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2021 Gallup poll found that Americans’ trust in media declined to its second-lowest (2016 was the nadir) since the organization began to conduct the annual poll in 1972.
But at the margins of intentional information rejection lie opportunities. It’s the reason Ben Smith and Justin Smith have promoted “unbiased journalism” as among their guiding principles. Grid, a free digital news service that launched Jan. 12, also has centered non-biased and transparency in its mission statement. “The Grid audience is anyone who seeks to understand the news in a more meaningful and complete way,” said Mark Bauman, a former ABC News reporter and National Geographic and Smithsonian Institution executive, who is running the organization with Laura McGann, previously the editorial director at Vox.
Bauman has raised more than $10 million in Series A funding from Abu Dhabi’s International Media Investments and tech entrepreneur Brian Edelman. McGann is running Grid’s 20-person newsroom.
“Grid is going to be additive to our audience’s media diet,” added Bauman. “It’s not zero sum. What we’ve consistently heard from high-volume news consumers is that they want a way to make sense of the deluge of headlines and stories.”
The deluge is real. The atomization of the media industry has only accelerated with a dizzying array of platforms including DC-centric Axios, Ken Doctor’s Knight Foundation-funded local news service Lookout Local, Punchbowl News as well as a phalanx of newsletters such as Graydon Carter’s Air Mail, Jon Kelly’s Puck, and the continued migration of popular writers to Substack (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss). All of these platforms are competing with bigger, established news brands — not to mention Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, YouTube and TikTok — for consumers’ attention and money.
“The metrics for success are very small,” observed Socolow. “These audiences are relatively teeny. A top Substack may have 40,000 subscribers. Put in context, that’s not even an audience for a local newscast in a small town. The real question is, will they have a civic impact? I have yet to see a story that began on Substack and had real consequences elsewhere.”
And that was always the point of journalism. But at a time when media organizations must deliver value to shareholders, and chasing clicks is a matter of survival, has the mission become muddied? In a social media dominant era when consumers can choose their own echo chamber, has it tilted toward limiting churn at the expense of holding the powerful to account? In an era of the algorithm-driven platform, where outrage is the dominant currency, is context and nuance just destined to be niche?
“In the subscription-based world, that payment represents figurative as well as literal buy in,” Stirewalt said. “That holds me to a higher standard. I’m accountable in a direct way. It’s not just selling MyPillow. Yes, they’re the customer and that has its own distorting effects, I’m sure. But I think it is superior set of distortions than just slavishly trying to keep eyeballs 100 percent of the time.”
Perhaps the question is, can you convince enough of the 200 million college-educated, English-speakers around the world to pay for reasoned journalism? Perhaps we will soon find out.