Making Cents of News Subscriptions

Paywalls be damned!

If you’re an avid news consumer, like me, or your profession demands it, like mine, you’re no doubt alarmed by the toll your daily habit is taking on your wallet. A quick tally of the digital news outlets to which I subscribe puts my annual outlay at around $1635. You do the math:

The New York Times ($204)

The Wall Street Journal ($100)

The Washington Post ($48)

The Los Angeles Times ($188)

New York Magazine ($50)

The New Yorker ($100)

The Information ($400)

Bloomberg News ($290)

Insider (fka Business Insider) ($100)

Puck ($75)

Vanity Fair ($30)

Medium ($50)

…others

And these are separate from the premium TV services streaming into my home, e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple+, Hulu, HBO Max… Or the plethora of newsletters that fill my inbox. Both are subjects for another post.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m more than happy to do my part to help quality news publishers stay in business given what’s become of their ad revenue streams. This is especially true for the hundreds of struggling local news brands whose vital role in a thriving democracy cannot be overestimated.

But I’m in the minority. Most Americans don’t have the luxury to fork over more than $1000 annually to sate their appetites for news or play an altruistic role in fortifying our democracy — if they even see a correlation.

Instead, their daily intake of local, national, and world events is mainly derived from what freely and algorithmically flows across their screens. And free doesn’t necessarily equate to fact-checked news and information, i.e., you get what you pay for.

Fortunately, we’re seeing glimmers of hope for solving the dual challenge of making quality journalism affordable and sustaining the publishers and reportorial staffs who produce it. Here are three news apps that are taking different approaches to the problem: NICKLpass, Audm, and Blendle.

NICKLpass’s model offers significantly discounted subscriptions to “hundreds” of news sites including the LA Times, Business Journals, Insider, TechCrunch, CNBC, and others. Businesses and institutions that recognize the value of having a more informed workforce are given a 70%+ discount depending on the number of users.

Think of it as an HR benefit, not unlike the perk of gym membership, but for a healthy mind to complement one’s healthy body. Philanthropists might also gift NICKLpass memberships to universities to offer to their students.

What’s more: the content NICKLPass offers is not some human or algorithmically curated collection of stories residing on a platform like Newser or Flipboard. Rather, it offers full, behind-the-paywall access to mainstream and specialty industry publications on their own domains. It even lets users share articles with those who don’t have subscriptions.

Most significantly, the quality publishers who’ve signed on also benefit by growing their paid subscriber base— at a time when new readers are harder to come by. And this translates to greater investment in their news operations.

Blendle, not to be confused with online dating site Blendr, claims to be “the biggest platform of premium journalism in the country.” It has hundreds of quality news publications in its portfolio. But rather than letting users get behind the paywall to access all of a site’s content, it takes a per-article/micropayment approach and is directed at news consumers (vs. the enterprise).

When I gained access after a day or so, I was asked to choose the publications I like from a list of news banners, e.g., The Washington Post, The Economist, New York Magazine…followed by reporting beats, e.g., U.S. Politics, Style/Culture, Economics/Business… I was also offered $2.50 to add to my wallet to get me started. Yes, less than what the online gambling sites are offering New Yorkers, but certainly enough given Blendle’s microeconomics.

One of the first articles I clicked on was a recent TIME magazine feature article on Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin titled “The Prince of Crypto Has Concerns.” Its price: 35 cents! I haven’t tooled around enough on the site to know whether that’s the going rate for all articles or whether the per-article fee is based on the length of the piece or the nature of the deal Blendle has struck with the publisher. (I’ll try to find out.)

Nonetheless, you can read six high-quality articles (many from behind paywalls) for the price of one freshly brewed Grande coffee at Starbucks.

Founded in 2016, Audm was purchased by The New York Times just as COVID hit — in March 2020. The iOS and Android app transforms long-form articles into audio. No browser version just yet. Audm users can listen to hours of new stories every week, from quality journalistic enterprises including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Wired, The Atlantic, and a host of others.

The $4.99/month subscription fee offers access to articles from “dozens of top publishers” with the most popular ones sitting atop the app’s home screen. Like Blendle, you select upfront the publications in which you’re most interested. You’re then shown different articles from which to choose.

Unlike Blendle, this is an all-you-can-eat, yet filtered menu of substantive offerings frequently read by the article’s own author. This morning I listened to Steven Johnson’s long-form piece from The New York Times Magazine on AI and language composition titled “The Writing on the Wall.” Running time: one hour and six minutes!

The audio itself is not slickly produced with music tracks and sound effects that you’d find on many high-end podcasts nowadays, including almost all from The New York Times. Yet, the story and writing are what drive engagement. It helps of course to have an effusive narrator, especially given each story’s length. I predict less TL;DR with this app!

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