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    Subscriptions Can Protect Media Credibility in Fake News Era [Opinion]

    Ali Gordon | Industry Analysis | 27th October 2020
    Subscriptions Can Protect Media Credibility in Fake News Era [Opinion]

    Fake news. Misinformation.  News avoidance. Alternative facts. Cyber propaganda. 

    In this digital age where news cycles are faster, publication is easier, and content reaches wider audiences than ever before in media history, these issues plague the industry with alarming consequences--ethical, political, and economic. 

    In 2019, the University of Oxford researched media trust in 38 countries and found that “the average level of trust in the news in general is down...and less than half [of respondents] agree that they trust the news media they themselves use.” There is no question this distrust has impacted political stability and polarization worldwide, but it has also affected the media industry itself during a time so many news companies already face widespread change and challenges.

    While there are many factors that impact integrity issues within the industry, companies can proactively combat fake news scandals by strengthening brand credibility with their readerships. During the coronavirus crisis, subscriptions have already proven to be an immediately resilient revenue stream , but they also have the potential long-term benefits of boosting brand and industry credibility in the fake news era.

    Most news companies don’t know their readers: subscriptions data can change this and lead to more media credibility.

    After 2016 when media credibility reached historic lows in the United States, Keith Grossman--global chief revenue officer at Bloomberg Media--offered this wisdom: “The best promotion any established brand can do to ensure trust is to always hold the trust of its readers sacred.” Subscriptions can play a role in holding that sacred trust to restore brand--and industry--credibility.

    Subscriptions data is uniquely positioned to help media companies understand their readers--something that is essential for long-term, trusting reader relationships. But so far, this isn’t something every news company is taking seriously.

    In 2019, professor of communications at the University of Oxford, Kim Christian Schrøder, published an in-depth study exploring the importance of reader relevance: “...despite decades of studies analysing how journalists prioritise stories, research has only recently begun to take seriously the question of what drives audience choices when it comes to news, how news preferences fit into people’s everyday lives, and the implications of these choices for democratic citizenship.”

    The Nieman Lab--a journalism project associated with Harvard University--thoughtfully analyzed a similar dynamic shortly after the media credibility crisis in the U.S. in 2016. Media companies really didn’t understand their audiences, and this led to incomplete reporting and broken trust: “...most — if not all — news organizations struggle to figure out who their existing users are, and they aren’t even close to knowing who their potential users are,” wrote Tracie Powell for Nieman Labs. “News organizations have been indifferent toward communities and audiences for so long that now communities and audiences are indifferent toward us…[for example] every report we produce on working-class Americans that fails to include [non-white working class people], is in fact, inaccurate and likely dismissed as “fake news” by those who’ve been left out of our reporting.”

    "Subscriptions data is uniquely positioned to help media companies understand their readers--something that is essential for long-term, trusting reader relationships. But so far, this isn’t something every news company is taking seriously."

    News companies that strive to understand their audiences are better positioned to offer more relevant, accurate, nuanced, and audience-aware information that is less likely to be dismissed.  Subscriptions data can help companies drill deeper into the driving questions about their readerships--and companies can use those insights to boost credibility with current and future readers. The data can also help companies better connect with existing audiences through more accurate journalistic works.

    “I hesitate to blame the public for any of this [distrust]. People are who they are…[we must] figure out how to serve them,” said seasoned journalist, Rod Hicks while working on a public trust project with the Society of Professional Journalists in 2019. Subscriptions data can help media companies analyze and truly serve reader relationships--holding that sacred trust with greater understanding and integrity. 

    Subscriptions can reconnect media brands with reader values--including for smaller businesses.

    "The subscription-based perception of value has potential to last beyond the pandemic for companies of all sizes--if they will use the data thoughtfully."

    Subscriptions data--and what it says about a brand’s nuanced readership--empowers media companies to understand their audience relationships, but it also enables them to shape their brand in ways that connect with underlying audience values, not just relevant experiences and interests. Connecting with audience values builds individual brand credibility and industry integrity.

    Market psychology has long affirmed that paying for something increases perceived value, and the same is true for subscriptions: “Sue Todd, chief executive of Magnetic, the marketing body for magazines in the UK, says the lack of trust has resulted in more people seeking a reliable source of information...when consumers pay to read news it has an affect on the trust that readers place on the content: Digital has driven the perception that if it’s free, it’s not as verifiable.”

    During the coronavirus pandemic, perception of value and reliability have been especially important, and not just for big businesses: digital subscriptions in the U.S. increased 2x to 5x more than usual, especially for established local media businesses. These subscriptions gave readers more security and confidence in content from local news, while also adding surges of revenue to smaller companies

    This subscription-based perception of value has potential to last beyond the pandemic for companies of all sizes--if they will use the data thoughtfully. 

    "Rather than having to guess why their readers find value in their brand--or could find more value in it--media companies that leverage subscriptions data can ask and answer more questions about their readers’ existing values. This enables companies to make brand,  content and product adjustments accordingly."

    Director of editorial content at marketing consultant, MECLABS Institute, Daniel Burstein, suggests that by understanding audience values through subscriptions “...companies are able to close a value perception gap. These factors are essential because they are fertile ground for helping you build a more powerful value proposition that is aligned with your readers’ motivations...A value perception gap is never the consumer’s fault -- the burden lies with the company to communicate that value.”

    Rather than having to guess why their readers find value in their brand--or could find more value in it--media companies that leverage subscriptions data can ask and answer more questions about their readers’ existing values. This enables companies to make brand,  content and product adjustments accordingly.

    It usually goes much deeper than the need for verifiability and reliability--which can motivate an initial subscription purchase like during the pandemic. For example, many audiences also value media companies and journalists that connect authentically with their local communities. The Pew Research Center explained in a 2019 report, “...[the public] has high expectations for their area news providers when it comes to their capacity to be a genuine part of the community...Community residents who see their local journalists as connected to the area give their local news media far higher ratings than those who do not.”

    Subscriptions data could offer insights that media brands can leverage to connect content and reader experiences to deeply held reader values--like reliability, efficiency, authenticity, commitment to community, exclusivity, journalistic transparency, clarity, affordability, etc. 

    The reader relationship begun at a subscription may be retained long-term if brands of all sizes will strengthen their value propositions, understanding their readers better from that initial starting point: “...if today’s news websites worry more about reader value than “time spent,” they may be more financially successful…‘When you do that, instead of trying to manipulate your reader to spend more time with you, or ‘capture’ them, or take them inside a walled garden, I’m trying to understand what they need,” say Mark Jacob and Tom Rosenstiel in a critical analysis of reader retention and subscriptions for Northwestern University in 2019.

     Credibility built by centering readers offers a brighter future for media brands and beyond.

    News companies must take seriously the importance of understanding, serving, and centering their readers and their values. Using tools like subscriptions data, media businesses can take intentional steps to understand readers as more than market transactions--but as complex, nuanced relationships. This approach can go a long way towards retaining credibility for individual brands, renewing integrity for the industry at-large, and potentially contribute to restoring political and information landscapes well beyond.

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