The eyedropper and the leaky faucet: Rethinking the subscription model

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Well, this has been an interesting few days for the subscription model, hasn't it? Here in Canada, the environmentally focused National Observer hunkered down behind a subscription paywall. That's after two years of being Kickstarter- and crowdsource-supported.

Meanwhile, Blendle, the "iTunes of News" seems like it too is flirting with a subscription model for a "Blendle Bundle." At least that's what they're hinting in a recent survey sent to Blendle users.

And, last week, Apple announced that its App Store will allow a variety of apps to use a subscription model for payment. On Monday the company told attendees at its World Wide Developers' conference keynote that major publishers like National Geographic will be able to offer subscriptions to content in the Apple News app.

This, despite the fact that very few subscription or paywall models have worked well, except for major players like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Sure, subscriptions have been a winning bet for Netflix, Spotify and audible.com. And, of course, magazines and newspapers depended on a subscription/advertising income stream for decades, not that it's working out so well.

Consumers are in a different place today, and that's a place where we are starting to feel nickeled, dimed, drawn and quartered by each $5, $7 or $10 subscription we're paying out each month already.

We are reaching peak subscription fatigue. So, there's real first mover advantage when it comes to subscription categories. We were keen to sign up for Netflix, when the idea of all-you-can eat streaming TV was fresh and new. But we're much less likely to sign up for Hulu or Shomi or other latecomers.

On the apps side, we might be willing to part with $5 a year for the three or four must-have apps on our phones, but after that, we'll get pretty picky. This is even the case when we would gladly pay $5 each year for a new version of an app we like. We are much happier to give away money from an eyedropper than from a dripping tap we're afraid will never stop leaking. And, the reality is that most non-nerd users don't have more than three non-built in apps on their phones at the best of times.

Right now Blendle has a very user-friendly model, micropayments for just the stories you want from a slate of great magazines, including Slate, Fast Company and the New York Times. The fact that they are flirting with a subscription model suggests that those micropayments aren't making macroeconomic sense for them.

And then there's the National Observer. Some Canadian sites like allnovascotia.com have adopted a subscription model. In their case a hefty $15 a month, jacked up to $30 a month after 60 days. But it's an outlier and most of its subscribers are businesses. At that, the publication has only just about 9,000 subscribers. Plus, it's aggressively against sharing any content online beyond a strict paywall. It's not so much as a walled garden as a journalism penal colony. And, it's a business model that better suits an exclusive print business newsletter than a web property.

That's not a model the National Observer can emulate. It's an issues-based publication that needs to have it stories discussed, shared and noticed, not just chatted about by 9,000 businesspeople and politicians. Paywalls dissuade social sharing, as do subscriptions. And, it's not as if there isn't a lot of environmental coverage and information already available in Canada, as good as the National Observer's journalism is.

Plus, it's really hard to sell a leaky hose to folks who just want a smaller eyedropper.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Jen R/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.