Solving the newspaper conundrum: some thoughts for Mrs May

It is great that the government is going to conduct a review into the travails of the press. They may well find that the issue is simpler than it first appears.

The problem the press suffers from, put simply, is that it can’t make enough money. This isn’t, on the whole, because it is less relevant. More people read newspapers online than ever read them in print.

The problem is that being more popular doesn’t make them more money. When this happens it’s a sign of a basic problem in a market. Generally speaking, being more popular – selling more – is the key to success in any business.

So the challenge the press faces is how to convert their popularity into revenue. As long as they depend on advertising revenue this will continue to be a challenge and it will be a hard one for the government to intervene in.

None of the interventions proposed to date, here or elsewhere, really do much to solve the problem either. Most of them amount to a proposal to force the big platforms to pay money to the newspapers, or variations on that theme. But the deeper you dive into these, and especially if you understand the complexities of copyright and compulsory licensing, the less attractive they look and the more obvious the risk of perverse outcomes becomes.

The real answer to making news pay is to get customers to pay. The tragedy of the news industry is that such a simple and uncontroversial suggestion sounds, to many, like a mad fantasy.

But put that aside and imagine for a moment that it became true, people were willing to pay for their news.

What would they be willing to pay for? It would have to be something they really liked and valued. It would matter to most readers that they could trust it – fake news would hugely damaging to that. It would need to be habit forming and it would have to reflect their values.

The newspaper market would start to resemble the one we used to know – diverse, competitive and heavily invested in content production.

What would happen to their relationship with the platforms? Well, if every time someone came to read something, and the newspaper made money, they would probably take a very different view of how the platforms accessed and promoted their content. They might even want to encourage and invest in it because it would be a form of marketing.

What would happen to the competitive landscape? If anyone who could launch a media product could make money from it in direct proportion to how popular it was, lots of people would try. Some would succeed. Investors would be attracted to a sector which was capable of generating significant returns.

We would have a thriving market, in other words – not just for news, but for all kinds of media.

But how could it happen? How can we ever persuade consumers to start paying for the content they love? Subscriptions put off all but the most avid fans whereas most media consumption is quite casual and uncommitted.

The answer to that has just been launched. Try it for yourself, on Popbitch, and see. Set up a wallet, put a little bit of money into it. Soon you’ll be able to take that wallet and spend it on an increasing range of sites. Anyone who can attract you can charge you as low as 1p, or as high as they think they can persuade you to pay.

Look at that and think again about whether or not consumers will pay for news. If the price is right, and it’s simple enough that becomes a question of how good you can make your product.

Get it right and there’s a lot to play for.