Pay-per-read, crowdfunding, patrons: Do we need a new funding model for newspapers?

The demise of The independent print edition raises the question of how we can fund quality journalism in the future. W's Warren Johnson considers some radical proposals.

How much do we value knowledge, asks Warren Johnson?
How much do we value knowledge, asks Warren Johnson?

Having worked with the title for the past five years in a PR capacity, I confess to getting a little misty eyed about the final print edition of The Independent last Saturday. But emotions aside, as another title disappears, it raises an increasingly urgent question for society: how are we going to fund quality journalism in the future?

This goes far beyond the fate of any particular brand – or even any particular format. Hacks may be weeping over the demise of print, but the fact is that ink on paper is just a delivery mechanism that is inexorably being superseded by a cleaner, faster delivery mechanism – digital.

It’s ironic that The Independent has been consistently the most imaginative and daring of all the nationals. It refused to toe a party-political line, was the first to go compact, pioneered high-impact picture-led front pages – and launched a "cut-price and concise" version, i. Its proprietor even had the chutzpah to turn another of his titles, the London Evening Standard, into a freesheet (turning a heavy loss-maker into a mass-circulation break-even title).

While the internet is brilliant at creating punk music – untrained people writing and recording a two-minute song in their bedrooms in a morning – it can’t do orchestral music because it can’t monetise quality.

It’s true for music, for film, for TV, for literature, and it’s true for journalism. How will we maintain the high quality, well researched, properly edited, independently sourced news and analysis that society needs if we are to be properly informed and our leaders held to account?

Should we start thinking of newspapers less as brands or businesses but as cultural institutions – like the Tate or the Museum of Modern Art? Or even sporting competitions and zoos?

The existence of these organisations is based on a range of funding models and approaches to monetise their audiences. 

In zoos these days, nearly every animal is sponsored. At the Tate, just as with big sporting events, there are different levels of sponsorship available – ranging from long-term strategic corporate partner to private annual membership.

We all read newspapers in different ways, for different things. Shouldn’t what we pay reflect that? Pay-per-view is one option for the least engaged. But loyalists could become patrons of their chosen paper. Regular readers could be members. They could pay for dinner with the editor or star writers. They could even crowdfund investigative journalism content. 

It’s a way of thinking that’s rightly finding traction among the UK print media, as circulations continue to suffer and advertising margins get squeezed. 

That’s because it reframes readers as stakeholders who are invested in supporting high-quality journalism that will serve the best interests of society at large. 

If we truly value a strong, diverse press (on whatever platform) we each need to move beyond one-size-fits-all and ask ourselves not whether we should be paying for news coverage, but how much we – as intelligent, thinking individuals – value knowledge.

Warren Johnson is chief executive of W

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