As the New York Times cuts jobs, we need to consider radical ideas to save news.

“What Newspaper do you read?”

This was once a fair question. But if I asked it in earnest now, you’d laugh. Nobody reads just one. Not any more. We harvest good articles from across the web.

Just this morning I’ve read content on two blogs (1 2 ) , six different news sites, (1 2 3 4 5 6) a think tank and visited seven social media / forum sites ( 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ). But I only have a couple of online subscriptions.

We are reading more content than ever. And yet venerable institutions like the New York Times are still cutting jobs.

“The job losses are necessary to control our costs and to allow us to continue to invest in the digital future of The New York Times, but we know that they will be painful both for the individuals affected and for their colleagues,” said the company in a statement.

Everyone knows that eyeballs are now online, and everyone knows that the rivers of gold that were classified advertising have dried up. News sources are combatting these issues by building terrific websites, and by doing a range of smart but suspect things to raise money, like native advertising.

But I say there is a third trend that is wreaking havoc on the newspaper business. It is not hidden but its implications are not widely discussed.

That is that people don’t just read one news source any more. They won’t subscribe because they can’t choose which one to subscribe to.

Instead of talking about this, the debate about winning subscriptions to online journalism is crazily caught up in the weeds:

e.g. Boston Globe drops paywall, adds meter instead. 

Each individual news company is wringing its hands, frowning and wondering why nobody will pay $400 to subscribe.

This focus on what you individually can do better leads to worrying about the micro scale. For example, fussing over how much content you reveal before the jump:

“But I wonder if we’re about to see news writing being taken in a new direction as paywall journalism takes over. For the wrong reasons, the rules are being rewritten. Most publications with paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and the first paragraph or two. To read more you have to pay. So with a one fact story – Fred X has been named as the new boss of Company Y – there might be insufficient motivation for the non subscriber to subscribe – unless they can be tantalised. Instead, we’re moving to a situation where intros absolutely cannot get straight to the key fact. Instead, it must be written to intrigue the reader. Company Y has named its new boss. To read more, please log in…” – Mumbrella

But if they want to answer why loyal readers don’t seem to be willing to pay the same to access the same stories when they are presented in digital format, just look at consumer behaviour. We are no longer loyal.

In the 1980s, the remote control and cable TV spread across America like wildfire. The internet is to news what the remote control was to TV. We don’t just watch one station any more. I believe the lesson of TV can be applied to online news – big money can be made by bundling.

Put it this way: would you pay to subscribe to just one TV channel? How would you choose which one?

Cable TV works by selling you lots and lots of channels. That’s what online news sources need to do.Our budgets to spend on online news are unlikely to have shrunk. News sites need to find a middle man that can bundle their product up and capture all those individuals’ budgets.

Here’s the core of a perfect bundle to sell to me:

  • The Age
  • The AFR
  • The Australian
  • The Economist
  • NY Times
  • ESPN
  • The Times
  • South China Morning Post
  • Bloomberg
  • Reuters
  • Crikey
  • New Matilda
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Financial Times
  • The Atlantic
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Guardian
  • Vox

There would also be lots of other sites in the mix that I never look at, and which I constantly grump about “paying for”. That’s the cable TV model and it works.

But it won’t be easy. Here’s why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Putting competing newspapers behind a single paywall would make the owners and editors of those newspapers extremely nervous and uncomfortable. From an institutional perspective, it feels both ridiculous and impossible to achieve. It requires looking at the news business from a totally different angle. It also has significant start-up and coordination problems.

But from a reader perspective, it would be completely natural and neat and helpful to be able to subscribe to everything you want to read and neither run into paywalls nor constantly expect your preferred titles to disappear.

Furthermore, bundling could help the news industry improve. In cable TV, each channel tries to specialise to earn its place in the mix.

The process of stealing breaking news, features and soft stories, which is currently consuming the news industry, could be diminished if the financial security of each channel depended more on differentiation than same-ification.

You could imagine the middle man that solves the question of news subscription bundling being a Murdoch. But it would not have to be.

Twitter already serves as a kind of news site aggregator. Imagine a world where twitter filtered tweets into two columns: those that link to sites that you subscribe to, and those that link to other sites. You’d never have to hit a paywall again, and even better, you could share paywalled material without feeling like you let your social media followers down.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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