With Argentina and the world up in flames, thanks to the one-two punch of global coronavirus pandemic and economic meltdown – the magnitude of which has not been seen at least since the Great Depression – it may seem like a strange time to launch a new and important product. Not only are the circumstances awful from a macro perspective, they’re even more more so within the media industry, and particularly in Argentina, which is locked in a dangerous and deadly downward spiral of falling print circulations and revenues, as companies are forced to feed on the meagre crumbs leftover in the digital advertising world by the Silicon Valley oligopoly.
Alas, there’s no better time than right now, says the phrase. Over the past few weeks we’ve been quietly rolling out the different functionalities of a digital subscription model across Perfil.com. This move, which I will explain in further detail, marks a strategic shift in the way we conduct our operations and how we structure our newsroom. If successful, it could allow us to find an economically sustainable model for independent, counter-cyclical, investigative journalism in Argentina.
Media companies have been submerged in crisis for the past two decades throughout the globe, given their incapacity to adapt their traditional business models to the digital world. The hit has been particularly tough on publishers, which generate the lion’s share of in-depth journalistic work. Up until the mid-2000s, publishers still had strong print circulations and could charge handsome rates for full-page ads, for which they had ample demand. The rug had been pulled from under their feet, though – they just hadn’t yet noticed. Relying on print revenues, newspapers decided to throw all of their content online for free, looking for greater reach and, therefore, more advertising dollars. Failing to see the breadth and power of Google, Facebook and the rest of the major platforms, they downplayed the importance of digital and failed to invest and innovate, content with a model in which rates were counted in dollars and cents, rather than tens to hundreds of dollars.
The correction hit different geographies at different times. In Argentina, the industry never really recovered from the 2001 implosion, and it was ultimately put under real duress during the last several years of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s second presidency. In the United States, it was the 2007-2008 so-called ‘Great Recession,’ which finally vacuumed up excess advertising dollars, leaving an industry which had subsidised circulation bankrupt. In Brazil, Dilma Roussef’s impeachment marked the beginning of the end of the print media industry as we knew it.
The causes and the collateral effects, though, are quite similar. Running large newsrooms focused on hard news and investigative journalism is impossible in a world governed by speed, breadth, and clicks. While an edition is a work in of itself, with a hierarchy of content and an editor’s touch — which is what readers pay for — the Internet is dominated by lists of content in the form of search results (Google) and fees (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). In print, it was possible for an editor to highlight an important, in-depth investigation by featuring it in the cover of the centre spread, indicating to readers that it is important to sit down and spend a good 30 minutes reading it. On the web – where more than 65 percent of news is consumed directly from search engines, social media, and messaging applications like WhatsApp – the news must compete with every other type of content in the same feed, including friends and family’s pictures, memes and other viral content, digital advertising and more.
All of this is exacerbated by the world of smartphones and algorithms. Starting with the former, we are constantly plugged in to everything that’s going on around us, so we consume whatever we do on our phones all the time – and while we are doing other things too. We receive alerts and notifications while we multitask on a small screen. Immediacy instinctually becomes the norm. The algorithmic generation of these lists and feeds of content generates a need to “please” or “trick” the robot or algo. Thus, declining revenues and a digital ecosystem that is based on algos and feeds incentivises the use of click-bait headlines, viral content, and the need to prioritise quantity and speed, with less journalists at hand.
For the past several years, media companies have been laying off journalists and focusing on generating as much traffic as possible in an attempt to run away from the Grim Reaper’s scythe. This has generally lowered the quality of the content being put out there, both the serious stuff and the “click-baity” type. As the media weakened, the rein of the platforms allowed for a new and dangerous iteration of the old “misinformation” campaign to come about (incorrectly called “fake news”), further pressuring the position of both democracies and journalism.
The paradigm changed a few years ago, when The New York Times proudly presented a successful digital subscription model, known as a “paywall” in industry jargon, for a generalised newspaper. It had failed before, but economic papers like the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal had been effective, offering niche content that is a work tool for many. The New York Times led the way, showing that a high quality digital product, along with a strong and committed effort to knowing their audience and catering to their needs, could translate into readers paying for the news. Many complained, used to receiving it for free, but a select group considered it valuable, and that group grew to nearly six million for the Grey Lady, exceeding print revenue for the first time last quarter.
Several players across the world have followed suit, including Clarín and La Nación in Argentina. Inspired by all of them, and working closely with our domestic colleagues, we are seeking to create our own model. Working with an Argentine technology provider, Wyleex, we are setting up a “metered paywall” on the digital version of our print stories. We’ve set the limits quite high for the time being — 40 monthly stories for a free registration and 80 for a subscription — but our intention is to move toward a “dynamic”model in which we identify individual users based on their interests, and their attraction to our content.
Yet, the underlying point must remain the same as in print: we must deliver a strong editorial product that represents what Perfil has built upon all along. We have been an independent player looking to include all voices, trying to escape the “grieta” while scrutinising those in and out of power. We take pride in our columnists but also in our magazine heritage, allowing us to cover a wide scope of content from multiple angles. If we succeed in doing this – and in translating that experience into the digital world – then it is possible to imagine a future for independent journalism in Argentina.