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May 23, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:20am

‘Posh news for posh people?’ – FT, Future, Mail Online and Guardian execs discuss funding models

By Bron Maher

“Posh news for posh people” has been described as one “feasible” – but “not desirable” – way of funding news by an executive at the Financial Times. 

However, chief executives at fellow publishers Future, Mail Online and The Guardian were less supportive of the idea.

The comments came at a panel on “authority in the digital age” at the Deloitte and Enders Media and Telecoms conference on Thursday 12 May.

Following a panel discussion, one audience member asked whether “the future of the news [is] paid subscription products for a small elite”.

The reader market, the questioner said, “used to be millions of people buying things for small amounts of money every day… where does the middle of that market, that used to exist, get met? Or is it gone?”

Panel moderator Kamal Ahmed, formerly editorial director of the BBC, reworded the question to: “Is everything going to be posh news for posh people that can pay for it?”

First to respond was Jon Slade, chief commercial officer at the Financial Times, who said: “I think that is actually a feasible outcome – not a desirable one, but it’s feasible that you’d be subsidising one [mass journalism] with the other.”

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A typical FT subscription costs £35 a month. Through the Covid-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, however, the title has made parts of its coverage free to read. In March it also launched FT Edit, a low-cost app offering an editor-curated list of eight FT articles a day, which costs 99p a month for the first six months, rising to £4.99 a month afterward. 

Zillah Byng-Thorne, chief executive of magazine and website publisher Future, said she “completely disagree[d]” with Slade.

“You choose your consumption model based on how you want to consume,” she said.

Byng-Thorne told Press Gazette in November that Future’s acquisition of magazine publishing rival Dennis completed her “holy trinity of media revenues”: advertising, e-commerce and affiliate sales, and recurring revenues such as subscriptions.

Byng-Thorne expanded on her answer in a phone call with Press Gazette after the conference, saying: “All the content we create is excellent, and I’m exceptionally proud of all of it.

“But we recognise that different audiences want different things. And the implication Kamal was making was that only if you can afford to pay for it, can you access proper journalism – and I take offence at that.

“Because the implication being that if you don’t have a paywall, for some reason or other, it’s less valuable. One of our brands is Live Science, the absolute authority on all things scientific, and no one pays to access that content.”

She said that she did see a place for subscriptions, however, for “more loyal audiences” who “might want community content”.

At the conference, Guardian Media Group interim chief executive Keith Underwood followed Byng-Thorne, saying he felt his publication’s model suggested there was no need for “posh news for posh people”.

“For us, it’s a revenue model of advertising and contributions – the contributions mean that little bit helps cover those who can’t afford to pay for it.”

The Guardian hit one million paying digital readers in December, the first British publisher to do so (followed closely by the Financial Times). The publisher does not paywall any of its content, instead calling on sympathetic readers to donate to keep it afloat.

For his part, Daily Mail and General Trust chief executive Paul Zwillenberg said: “A free press is absolutely fundamental to modern democracy. We put our money where our mouth is, ours is free to use.

“I suspect over time the model will evolve to a freemium [model] where you get a lot of free content, and there might be certain stuff, for certain audiences, that’s paid. But free, you have to have free.”

Zwillenberg said Mail Online’s revenue model had “resilience and strength” earlier in the panel discussion when asked by Ahmed how advertising income fared in major economic shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The decision for us to focus on an ad-supported model was actually pretty simple, pretty straightforward,” Zwillenberg said.

“When you measure your daily engagement in hundreds of millions of minutes of usage a day, you can make an advertiser model work… 

“As we continue to go from site to site, when you’ve got that scale, when you’ve got that audience, when you’ve got that information and when you’ve got that credibility among advertisers, you can generate very compelling CPM [cost per mille – the amount advertisers pay to reach 1,000 viewers].

“Yes, of course it is a bit more variable than some stricter models might be. And so when advertising is challenging, yields do come down. But the model is showing its resilience and strength today.”

Picture: Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

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