Student guest post: Subscriptions, not clicks, are what journalism must prioritize

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts.

Brennan Doherty is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. He covers UNC athletics for The Daily Tar Heel and recently served as a communications intern with North Carolina Football Club (North Carolina FC/NC Courage) in Cary. Doherty has covered high schools sports in North Carolina for four years, with his stories primarily appearing in The News & Observer. He previously served as the sports editor at The Daily Gamecock while he was a student at the University of South Carolina.

A few months back, I finally gave in and subscribed to The Athletic, eager to see what all the hype was about. Thanks to their student plan, I have access to in-depth beat reporting on my favorite professional teams (New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Mets and the Carolina Hurricanes) as well as a good selection of national coverage for just under $30 a year.

My experience with The Athletic has strengthened my belief that journalism in 2019 should be much more concerned with subscriptions than it is with clicks. Sure, The Athletic is a niche service, a site dedicated to hardcore sports fans. But I think the subscription model it utilizes should be learned from and applied to newsrooms throughout the country for coverage that goes beyond sports.

It’s well known that advertising revenue has traditionally powered print journalism. It’s also no secret that money from ads is harder to come by in the digital age with competition from the likes of Google and Facebook. In a class taught on community journalism by Jock Lauterer at UNC-Chapel Hill, he repeated the following line several times throughout the semester: “Print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”

When it comes to ad revenue, it’s not what it used to be – and probably never will be again. Yet, a visit to the average newspaper’s website will you remind you how keen news organizations are on trying to squeeze every last drop of ad money from a well that’s nearly dried up.

Attempting to read a story online can be like navigating a maze. Once you get past the banner ad, you’ll probably be distracted by a video you have no interest in. Providing padding on both the left and right ends of your screen will be more ads, possibly with moving text or other motion elements. Somewhere in between is the story – what this whole thing is supposed to be about, anyway.

Arguably the clearest difference between The Athletic and other sports sites it competes with is its minimalist, distraction-free design. There are no ads here because you’ve paid to make them disappear with your subscription. Instead, the reader is greeted with a layout that puts the story front and center and blocks out all the other noise. In a nutshell, reading is no longer a chore.

Personally, it’s refreshing to read a story about something I’m interested in like the Carolina Hurricanes and not have the story broken up by a highlight video of a random minor league hockey team I had never even heard of just because the video comes with an ad.

Web aesthetics and user experience aside, a pivot from an ad-centered strategy to a subscription-based model can bring about positive change in how news is covered while also fostering better long-term relationships with readers.

When you live and die by advertising, you’re beholden to the number of unique visitors your site attracts. Otherwise, advertisers wouldn’t be interested in doing business with you anyway.

An obsession with clicks can lead to the temptation of producing content that you think will draw visitors to your site, even if that means reporting on stories that aren’t worth covering or engaging in a cryptic game of cat-and-mouse on social media to get clicks in an age where most news breaks on places like Twitter anyway.

In local news, this can take away from reporting on what truly matters. An unfortunate reality is that a lot of the meaningful journalism making a difference in communities across America – work that costs a lot of money to complete, by the way –  does not lend itself to a ton of clicks. At least not at first.

But what can be harmful is choosing to bypass reporting on topics that matter just because the number of clicks they receive don’t validate their importance right away. It seems to me many newspapers in 2019 could benefit from patience in deciding what to prioritize. But it’s tough to be patient when you’re answering to advertisers.

However, getting paid up front – through a subscription model – might change this. Personally, there have been numerous times on Twitter when I’ve seen reporters from The Athletic share stories they wrote and they’ll mention how they never would have had the chance to write similar pieces at their past employers.

To use a sports analogy, money generated from subscriptions is like a good running game in football. It’s not the flashiest thing in the world, but it’s dependable and sustainable. I think subscriptions build relationships with readers and make them more inclined to engage with the news organization consistently, which makes sense. You’re going to want to use what you’re paying for.

Clicks, meanwhile, can be like a 50-yard passing play. Sure, you might have a story go viral and do numbers. But can you plan on doing that time and time again? Probably not.

There are success stories that can be looked at for guidance. For instance, Digiday reported that The Seattle Times recorded a 38 percent increase in digital subscribers in 2018 by encouraging reporters to report on topics more likely to lead to subscriptions, not clicks. The paper, Digiday’s Max Willens wrote, “is part of a broader movement among news publishers pivoting away from content that does not build habits or direct connections with their audiences.”

Persuading readers to pay for news when it’s mostly been posted for free on the internet since the 1990s will still be a tough sell. But devaluing the good work journalists do through a reliance on clicks and advertising is a poor alternative destined to fail.

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter and read his stories on the Daily Tar Heel site.