by Nathan Schneider
November 30, 2016
In the post-election coming-out party for fake news, people seem more willing than usual to pay for the real thing. Subscriptions and donations to old-fashioned journalism have spiked since the election, benefiting outlets like Pro Publica, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. While it may be just a momentary outbreak of sanity, perhaps this is a moment of opportunity to change how we access and pay for quality news.
Enter a hypothetical startup, OurNews. (The domain our.news costs $1,000 per year.) It is a consumer-owned cooperative, and for, say, $10 a month, through its online platform (mobile, web, etc.), members get access to articles from a range of subscription-based publications, from prominent newspapers to a bunch of boutique specialty publications. The co-op negotiates bulk payment contracts with the publications, generally on a per-view basis; the more that people on the platform look for and read a given outlet’s content, the more it gets paid.
This would be like a Spotify for news. (Admittedly, an Australian startup triedis trying to be just that and no longer exists; a new co-op called Resonate, meanwhile, aims to challenge Spotify’s dominance of music streaming.) Like Spotify, OurNews would include a discovery tool, recommending articles meant not only to suit readers’ interests but to challenge them with less familiar points of view. Maybe readers could even specify when they log in how much cognitive dissonance they are in the mood to handle.
There are several benefits to this kind of approach, as compared to the Facebook-feed news-reading habit or subscribing to publications individually. Both of those models tend to foster “filter bubbles,” in which people end up encountering only news slanted toward their political biases. Facebook feeds, at least for now, do not adequately distinguish between accurate and inaccurate reporting.
Like Facebook, however, OurNews could become a social marketplace in which new, smaller publications could find both an audience and a source of revenue to fuel their growth. With its focus on providing quality news, the platform could take responsibility for vetting the outlets before including them, according to a set of public, reasonable standards. The platform could also incorporate an annotation tool, like the non-profit Hypothes.is, enabling readers to discuss and rate the accuracy of the stories they read.
At a time when trust in the news media is generally quite low, a consumer cooperative structure is a way to ensure that the delivery mechanism is accountable most of all to its readers—not to advertisers, not to the publications it delivers. OurNews, in turn, could help keep news organizations more accountable to those readers by applying pressure based on its purchasing power to ensure that the organizations maintain high journalistic standards. And as a co-op, unlike Spotify, the company could prioritize values like supporting lesser-known sources above the imperative to maximize profits for investors.
Carefully chosen ownership models have often been critical to how news organizations gain the trust of their constituents; The Guardian is owned by a non-profit, The New York Times is controlled by a mission-committed family, and The Associated Press, since its founding in 1846, has been a cooperative, owned by the news organizations that it serves. The most trusted U.S. news outlets are audience-supported public broadcasters—NPR and PBS. Jubilee, one of the finest examples of American Catholic publishing, ran on a subscriber-ownership model.