The unfortunate fact is that online journalism can’t survive without a wealthy benefactor or cat GIFs

As the traditional media industry has struggled with the ongoing decline of its traditional business and the emergence of new competitors like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, a number of different business models have taken shape, from paywalls or metered subscriptions to native advertising. But it is becoming increasingly clear that journalism — which in a sense has always been a subset of media — will never be able to survive without assistance from some other entity, whether it’s a rich benefactor or a non-media business.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that “serious” journalism has never really been able to survive on its own, but has always needed something to subsidize it. Reuters media writer Jack Shafer made that point recently in a post about how online news has never really made money — and likely never will. There is a universe of things that large quantities of people are willing to pay directly for, but the news doesn’t seem to be one of them (although some recent crowdfunded efforts are worth watching). Says Shafer:

“Were harder forms of news ever commercial? Gerald J. Baldasty’s book, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, makes a case clear as spring water that hard news has almost never been a mass commercial enterprise.”

News has always been subsidized somehow

newspaper boxes

In the good old days, the journalism business was subsidized by all of the other things a newspaper contained apart from the news. This included classified ads, obviously, but also horoscopes, gardening columns, the comic page and other add-ons that had little or nothing to do with news or journalism. Gradually the internet has taken most of these pillars away, and left newspapers with just the hard news — in other words, the only thing no one wants to pay for.

Obviously, some media outlets charge for their news and are still in business — the Wall Street Journal, for example, or the New York Times or Financial Times. But even they are not pictures of financial health: they have all had to cut staff, and to some extent the NYT and WSJ are subsidized by the largesse of their owners, people who became wealthy back when media businesses still spun off large amounts of cash. Rupert Murdoch pays for the New York Post‘s estimated $100 million or so per year in losses, for example, even though they don’t show any signs of stopping.

Until it was acquired by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post was subsidized not just by the Graham family, but also by the Kaplan education business (until it began to fail as well). In Canada, the largest national paper — the Globe and Mail — is owned by the Thomson family of Thomson Reuters fame, while the Toronto Star has been subsidized by both a family trust and the Harlequin romance business. The parent company of the Guardian in Britain subsidizes its journalism through a family trust but also through the ownership of the Auto Trader group of companies.

Even online-only entities have had to find ways of subsidizing their journalism: the Huffington Post is part of the shrinking AOL empire (s aol), and until recently All Things Digital was subsidized by its parent the Wall Street Journal — which both drove traffic to the site and helped sell ads on it. Now, the team behind the business has to find another large media partner to fill that role, presumably because relying on advertising alone isn’t going to pay the bills.


Sites like BuzzFeed and Business Insider aren’t really standalone businesses either: although the former says it is profitable (a claim that remains unproven), and BI owner Henry Blodget says his site turned a small profit earlier this year, both are clearly subsidizing the serious journalism they do — BuzzFeed’s political and foreign reporting, for example — through various forms of entertainment, whether it’s cat GIFs or slideshows of beauty-contest winners. BuzzFeed is also betting heavily on the value of sponsored content, although it’s not clear whether that will generate enough growth to support its market value.

A wealthy benefactor or cat GIFs and slideshows?

At this point, the options that media companies have when it comes to supporting their journalism break down into several categories:

Find a rich benefactor: This is the road the Washington Post took by selling to Jeff Bezos, and it has been taken by others as well — including the Independent, which is owned by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch. The Boston Globe was recently acquired by billionaire hedge-fund owner John Henry.

Ask for donations: Some sites that do valuable public and social journalism, such as ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, are based on a non-profit model that relies on charitable donations from the wealthy. This is a more established version of the Kickstarter model.


Have another business: This is what the Post did before it sold to Bezos, and what some other publications also do. Arguably AOL and the Huffington Post fall into this category as well — and so do Bloomberg and Reuters to some extent, by selling proprietary market-moving content through their corporate terminal and subscription businesses.

Focus on entertainment: BuzzFeed and Business Insider have clearly taken this route by using lighter content, which tends to appeal to advertisers, as a way of subsidizing their more serious journalism. But is that enough to build a sustainable business or will they also have to sell out to a larger entity eventually, as the Huffington Post did?

All of the above: Some media companies have taken an agnostic approach to the problem, including the the Economist and Atlantic Media. The former has a valuable proprietary research arm as well as an  events business (a similar model to the one Gigaom uses), while the Atlantic is owned by a wealthy benefactor but also does events, and is trying to build a digital subscription business.

Which of these models will ultimately be more successful? That’s almost impossible to say. What seems clear is that a media entity that focuses primarily on hard news or serious journalism can no longer be viable by itself, let alone become a massively profitable business like the media giants of old. Whether that is that a good thing or a bad thing for society is a topic for another post.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Photobank gallery and Flickr user George Kelly