It is perhaps in the nature of the beast that the news industry is so given to self examination. But what I find curious about this examination is that it’s almost always backward-looking. And that begs a question — what is the future for news?
For at least the past decade I have watched as this industry has struggled to make sense of the quicksand that is digital disruption. But, in the last 2 years there has been a positive shift with more in the news game showing a greater sense of clarity, focus and purpose.
Five years ago, publishers at conferences would look around, wondering if somewhere amid the endless talks of doom and gloom, someone would offer them a silver bullet? Today, a lot of them have done the hard work of pivoting into a new business model. And thankfully media conferences don’t feel so depressing and there’s hope among the meaningful insights about the art and science of building a thriving online news organisation. It is worth noting though that many of the publishers are not yet as near profitable as they were during the glory days. And unfortunately, not everyone will find actually find a sustainable path to profitability. So what does that mean for the industry?
The question that most people still seem to be grappling with is whether there is a future for robust private enterprise in the press sector. My view is that there is, but that we are very early on the journey as an industry and still just 5–10% of the way there. I say this because in order for the world to have a flourishing, pluralistic fourth estate, we’ll need to convince at least 500m readers to pay for news. Today we’re at less than a tenth of that figure.
If 500 million people were to pay an average cost of $50 per year, the industry would net 25 billion dollars in annual revenue. What does this mean for the number of journalists and newsrooms? Let’s assume that the global average annual wage for a journalist clocks in at $10k (the global average runs at roughly 1/10 of the average in places like the United States or Australia). Once you account for non-editorial staff and overheads, let’s assume that this figure has to be loaded up by 100%, i.e., $20k. That would imply that a ‘standard’ newsroom with 100 journalists would cost $2m to run. In practice this would vary considerably by location, but for now let’s keep dealing with a global average figure. So 25 billion dollars in total global revenue gets the world roughly 12,500 ‘standard newsrooms’.
The number of megacities around the world (with a population of 5 million on more) will soon approach 100. For these megacities, a standard newsroom would clearly be sub-scale. Today, the leading newsrooms in these largest cities are usually 5–10x bigger. So let us assume that for a vibrant press, each of these largest cities would require at least 3 newsrooms, each equivalent to 5 standard newsrooms (i.e., employing 500 journalists). That’s 1,500 standard newsrooms in total.
There are another 500 cities with a population between 1 and 5 million. Given the slightly smaller population let us assume a fully functional newsroom here is 3x-standard (i.e., 300 journalists). The press sector in these 500 cities would therefore also require a total of 1,500 standard newsrooms.
Then there are 600 cities with a population of half a million to one million people. Let us assume that in each of the cities a standard newsroom would be sufficient. And with three publishers per city, we’ll need another 1800 standard newsrooms.
So far, we’ve estimated that the 2.2B people living in cities will need almost 5,000 standard newsrooms to preserve transparency and accountability in the system.
This leaves us with another 5.6B geographically-distributed people, and 750,000 journalists to cover them. That’s just one journalist per 75,000 people, and clearly not enough. in America right now, there around roughly 10,000 people per journalist. And many would argue that this is already too few. But let’s assume that it suffices, and that the ratio holds. That would mean we are short by 485,000 journalists, and roughly $10 billion in annual revenue. At $50 per customer, this means we need another 200m customers at least — so the absolute bare minimum number of paying readers needed for a sustainable, vibrant, pluralistic fourth estate is 700m. Admittedly, this is back-of-envelope math, and there are many places one could punch a hole in it. The most likely place is that $50/customer pricing assumption. With rampant discounting already prevalent in developed markets, and newspaper prices massively subsidised in developing markets, this is a very tall ask. A safer assumption might therefore be $25/customer per year, which would imply that we’d need 1.5 billion readers to pay. But I also expect that advancements in technology like AI, remote work, and online collaboration will allow us to shift the future of work up a level, and generate greater value from individual contributors. Similarly, I also think that while consumers revenue will be the primary business model, other revenue lines like advertising, syndication, eCommerce, affiliate marketing, and events will continue to contribute to the top line. All in all, I would estimate that the future of news depends on getting roughly a billion people to pay for it.
Today there are roughly 25–50m people paying for news online. The change has well begun. But, it’s also well-less-than-half done. Far more thought, and conversation, is required if we want to get from where we are today, to that magic number. There is no doubt inkl, and other paid news platforms like ours, are essential for creating a future for the industry. But here’s the important thing — whether you pay for news through inkl, or directly to publishers, the important thing is for you to join the 3-comma-club. Be one of the billion people who pay for news, and encourage those around you to do the same. This is the only way to preserve transparency and accountability in society.