Subscribing To Unpopular Opinion

11 Dec

How does the move from advertising-supported content to a subscription model, e.g., NY Times, Substack luminaries, etc., change the content being produced? Ben Thompson mulls over the question in a new column. One of the changes he foresees is that the content will be increasingly geared toward subscribers—elites who are generally interested in “unique and provocative” content. The focus on unique and provocative can be problematic in at least three ways: 

  1. “Unique and provocative” doesn’t mean correct. And since people often confuse original, counterintuitive points as deep, correct, and widely true insights about the world, it is worrying. The other danger is that journalism will devolve into English literature.
  2. As soon as you are in the idea generation business, you pay less attention to “obvious” things, which are generally the things that deserve our most careful attention.
  3. There is a greater danger of people falling into silos. Ben quotes Johan Peretti: “A subscription business model leads towards being a paper for a particular group and a particular audience and not for the broadest public.” Ben summarizes Peretti’s point as: “He’s alluding, in part, to the theory that the Times’s subscriber base wants to read a certain kind of news and opinion — middle/left of center, critical of Donald Trump, etc. — and that straying from that can cost it subscribers.”

There are other changes that a subscriber driven model will wreak. The production of news will favor the concerns of the elites even more. The demise of “newspaper of record” will mean that a common understanding of what is important and how we see things will continue to decline.

p.s. It is not lost on me that Ben’s newsletter is one such subscriber driven outlet.