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Do driver­less cars need to be per­fect – or just bet­ter than us?

in­dus­try, that could mean con­tent cre­ators and pub­lish­ers feel forced to cede con­trol to a plat­form, and Google and Ap­ple are wait­ing in the wings with po­ten­tial so­lu­tions.


Plenty of pub­lish­ers have tried pay­walls, to vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess. But there’s a catch: many of us don’t read a sin­gle news source. Be­cause of that, and the hur­dles of sign­ing up for ac­counts at each and ev­ery site, the next ver­sion of the pay­wall may well be a plat­form. Com­pare it to taxis: rather than call­ing around to sev­eral dif­fer­ent pri­vate taxi rms, none of which have your de­tails or pay­ment card on le, you sim­ply tap a but­ton in the Uber app. But like taxi driv­ers, there’s plenty of rea­sons pub­lish­ers don’t want to hand their prod­uct over to a plat­form.

Google has been ne­go­ti­at­ing that tightrope for years, nally see­ing some love from pub­lish­ers thanks to changes to its pay­wall tool. Google would pre­vi­ously only give a high search rank­ing to news ar­ti­cles that were free to read, forc­ing pub­lish­ers to of­fer at least a few free­bies to en­sure that their sto­ries were vis­i­ble to read­ers via Google Search and Google News.

At the end of 2017, Google dropped that re­quire­ment. But that’s not all: Google is also of­fer­ing a tool to man­age vis­i­tors with ad block­ers – pop­ping up a mes­sage ask­ing you to turn yours off to visit the site for free – and let­ting read­ers easily sign up for an ac­count and sub­scribe us­ing their Google ac­count.

“This is some­thing a lot of pub­lish­ers seem pretty op­ti­mistic about,” ex­plained Brown. “Search – and Google in par­tic­u­lar – ob­vi­ously drives a lot of traf c, so news out­lets have been look­ing to Google for help. Get­ting rid of the ‘ rst click free’ pol­icy was big for sub­scrip­tion-based out­lets.

“Google has huge amounts of data about its users, so the prospect of them shar­ing data about peo­ple who are most likely to be con­verted into pay­ing sub­scribers, as has been mooted, is a wel­come de­vel­op­ment,” he added.

It’s easy to see the Google pay­wall be­ing used for mi­cro­pay­ments – buy ten sto­ries for £1 on Google, and it tracks your read­ing to dole the cash out to pub­lish­ers – or for man­ag­ing sub­scrip­tions, where it may have plenty of com­pe­ti­tion from Ap­ple.

“It’s a cen­tral cash reg­is­ter, that re­duces the fric­tion – and Google is in a great po­si­tion to do that,” said Le­hdon­virta. “[But] pub­lish­ers would not be too en­thu­si­as­tic about it, as it fur­ther in­creases Google’s power over the in­dus­try.”

Le­hdon­virta sug­gests me­dia gi­ants may be wise to band to­gether to build their own cross-in­dus­try pay­ment plat­form. There’s been some in­dus­try sup­port, no­tably in­vest­ment from The New York Times for in­de­pen­dent startup Blen­dle, which aims to let read­ers

ip a mi­cro­pay­ment to a pub­lisher for ac­cess to a story.


Ap­ple is mooted to be work­ing on a sub­scrip­tion news plat­form à la Spo­tify, fur­ther­ing its work with the Ap­ple News app – and even ru­moured to be con­sid­er­ing buy­ing a mag­a­zine pub­lisher. There have been pre­vi­ous at­tempts to ap­ply the ag­gre­gated sub­scrip­tion model to mag­a­zine pub­lish­ing, with Swedish startup Readly of­fer­ing ac­cess to a dig­i­tal se­lec­tion of mag­a­zines un­der a sin­gle monthly pay­ment.

Brown notes that the mu­sic stream­ing sub­scrip­tion model doesn’t trans­fer as easily to news as it did to video. “There’s more va­ri­ety in the news in­dus­try,” he said. If you want to read news, why pay when you can get it free? “So it isn’t like peo­ple are go­ing to ock to pay for news via Ap­ple’s new prod­uct be­cause it’s the only way to get news.”

Plenty of us have a pre­ferred news source, of course, but Brown notes that ag­gre­gated ser­vices re­duce brand vis­i­bil­ity, mak­ing the source less dis­tin­guish­able. That’s

ne for mu­sic and tele­vi­sion, where you want a wide range of ma­te­rial to lis­ten to and watch. “I’m not sure news trans­lates in the same kind of way,” said Brown. “I’d guess that peo­ple have their pre­ferred news brands and that many of those who are happy and will­ing to pay for news are per­fectly happy to pay di­rectly to those out­lets.”


Ap­ple and Google don’t want to prop up news be­cause they love the me­dia. They want to take a cut – and are well placed to do so, be­cause they al­ready have pay­ment card de­tails. But other plat­forms could suc­ceed, es­pe­cially as so­ci­ety be­comes more wary of the power tech gi­ants hold. Blen­dle and Readly of­fer op­tions (see be­low), but so too do smaller out ts such as mi­cro­pay­ment site Pa­treon. “That’s not huge yet, but niche con­tent pro­duc­ers are us­ing it to build a sub­scrip­tion model for their con­tent,” said Le­hdon­virta. .

While a tech-com­pany plat­form seems the ob­vi­ous an­swer for ease of use, Brown says he’s seen more bad ways of man­ag­ing con­tent pay­ments than good ones – and that in­cludes ef­forts from the ma­jor play­ers. “Face­book’s at­tempt at test­ing sub­scrip­tion sup­port in In­stant Ar­ti­cles was painfully clunky,” he said. “It was no sur­prise to me that the out­lets I saw tak­ing part in those tests are no longer do­ing so. Whether that was their de­ci­sion or Face­book’s, I’m not sure – but if it was theirs I would cer­tainly un­der­stand why.”

In the end, the fu­ture of news pay­ments may re­quire pub­lish­ers to ig­nore the rst wave of in­ter­net users and fo­cus on the sec­ond. Mock mil­len­ni­als all you want, but they’re more likely to pay for their news than the gen­er­a­tion that pre­ceded them, says Brown. “There seems to be some ev­i­dence that, for some US pub­lish­ers… growth in paid sub­scrip­tions is es­pe­cially en­cour­ag­ing among young peo­ple,” he said. “Some peo­ple put that down to those young peo­ple hav­ing be­come con­di­tioned to pay­ing for qual­ity con­tent via ser­vices like Spo­tify and Net ix.”

For the news in­dus­try to nish its evo­lu­tion to paid-for prod­uct, pub­lish­ers may need to learn to give up a bit of con­trol and we may need to be re­trained to cough up the cash.

News sites, such as The New York Times, have in­stalled pay­walls to re­coup some of the rev­enue lost to ad block­ers

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