The state of American news in the age of the pandemic: An era of subscriptions | Opinion

What Hulu and bundling can teach legacy media about the path to viability

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 By Samantha Correa

People don’t care about the news. At least, they don’t care about news in traditional formats. Rather than following local TV news or the daily paper, most people rely on ten-second clips with boldface captions for the rundown on current affairs.

Whether it’s TikTok, Twitter, or one of Zuckerberg’s Meta subsidiaries rich in minion memes, the American public has become dependent on social media. The result: news outlets that existed before the Internet, the legacy media, are hemorrhaging readers and influence. To ensure informative and reliable media, I believe merging with streaming services can revive the profitability of news companies whilst ensuring mass distribution of professional journalism.

Only 20 percent of Americans currently subscribe to leading news sites. According to the Pew Research Center, at least 48 percent depend on social media apps as their news primary sources, increased during the pandemic – for better or for worse.

Legacy media are adapting to the digital age, but compare The New York Times, leading in legacy media subscriptions at 9.1 million paying readers, to TikTok’s more than billion users as of 2021. At the pandemic’s height in 2020, newspaper sales revenues took a 25 percent dive compared to the year before.

Abandonment of traditional news sources risks greater faulty journalism with the rise of “citizen journalism” and self-made podcasts that never go through editorial boards before relayed to millions of users. Legacy media still leads in the production of research-based news such as investigative journalism, an expensive and increasingly dangerous undertaking. But the integrity of these institutions is constantly questioned by the public regardless, and often does not translate fiscally into profit as society transitions into a digital lifestyle.

The major problem is that the Fourth Estate, in its evolution to online forms since the mid 2010s, hides its knowledge from the Average Joe behind digital paywalls.

Average people won’t be purchasing an annual subscription to get high quality news. But the freedom of the press is a capitalistic enterprise – gripping and informative work costs money.

For the past two and a half years, news media companies such as The New York Times and The Atlantic have reached a compromise by removing paywalls for COVID-19 coverage. This allows non-subscribers access to general and helpful information regarding the pandemic. However, more detailed coverage such as understanding contact tracing or why paywalls are being removed during the pandemic is often still hidden behind paywalls.

So, where do we turn? If The New Yorker can’t offer interviews of Isaac Chotiner without a subscription, how can a person find reliable information regarding the pandemic?

Social media offers many forms of free information. The reliability of this free information is compromised due to spam bots relaying “fake news.”

Report finds nearly half of Americans get their news from social media | The Numbers Racket

Twitter has served as the breeding ground for all of this misinformation; in 2020 alone, out of the 200 million recorded tweets regarding COVID-19, nearly half were posted by non-human accounts.

Unfortunately, the youth who cannot afford to subscribe to media outlets are the ones vulnerable to misinformation and spam bots. As of 2021, those who depended on social media for their news were often younger and non-white, having less education than those subscribed to more informative platforms.

To reduce the spread of misinformation, notably since the 2020 election, social media outlets such as Twitter have tightened policies regarding spam and fake accounts. However, malicious bots relaying biased and/or false information to promote products, blogs, or campaigns will continue to exist so long as social media platforms’ business models remain as they are.

Currently, social media networks such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are designed to collect data that can be shared with advertisers.

Essentially, those with social media accounts are customers, and the networks simply make it a more tailored experience (“paid-for content”) to increase the likelihood of e-commerce sales. Similarly, Spambots’ artificial intelligence is programmed to track people’s interests to then share false news via direct messaging.

The social media sphere is a marketplace, and so long as its model remains the same at the top level, others will exploit this design for their own benefit. Currently, the prominence of misinformation spread on Twitter has even placed the future of the company on hold, with Elon Musk considering withdrawing his $44 billion purchase of the platform due to inconsistent reports of the number of bots on the site.

Ultimately, social media is not designed to be “netizens'” primary source of news. That is why the survival and accessibility of traditional news outlets should be a primary concern. But how do we get people to read the news or watch important documentaries that can help us stay informed?

The convergence of streaming platforms and news promises the best of both worlds in this age of subscriptions: keeping traditional media companies profitable while making quality news coverage affordable.

This would complement the current nature of consumers, with online subscription services increasing by 78 percent among Americans since 2021. C

urrent streaming subscription prices subbing $10 lean into this vision, but are hardly profitable for shareholders. As a solution, bundling has helped companies such as Discovery+ and HBO gain more revenue from customers.

Potentially, if news conglomerates were to merge with streaming companies, bundle plans could offer both investigative journalism and the latest hit series all in one subscription.

There are evident limitations to charging individuals for consuming essential information which limits levels of accessibility to citizens.

However, with the downfall of CNN+ and the steady decline of BuzzFeed and VICE, it is clear that cutting edge news services offering investigative journalism and high-budget documentary work cannot survive independently, since people are not motivated to spend their money on solely news-based media.

Hulu seems to have the blueprint for the future subscription based streaming services that can be accessible to all audiences. A mixture of ads creates a tiered system that this dynamic and affordable to many. Additionally, Hulu has a discounted subscription package with Disney+ and ESPN+ after Disney’s 2019 acquisition of the company, which has sustained all three networks despite not being nearly as popular as Netflix.

Approximately 80 percent of American households are currently subscribed to at least one streaming service, and are looking to cut down costs by reducing subscriptions as much as possible (which can be achieved by bundle packages). Via company partnerships, we can make this applicable to news as well.

Amidst a health crisis, the truth is what we need. By being conscious of consumers’ evolving habits, businesses can offer reliable news in a more effective and convenient way. With higher quality journalism accessible to all demographics, news literacy can be facilitated by integrity and not tainted by paranoia and misinformation at the hands of kitschy posts, bots, and tweets.

Samantha Correa is a first-year student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.