Is journalism dying? Or is it about to enter a new golden age?

The parlous state of journalism is mentioned frequently alongside such dark and contemporary issues as “fake news,” the increasing prevalence of nationalism and extremism, and electoral strangeness such as Brexit and Donald Trump.

Enough people appear worried about the future of responsible, balanced, unbiased, public interest journalism, that it is being fatally undermined.

The backdrop is a digital world in which consumers increasingly turn to Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others for news. With readers leaving the physical space of news – the tangible, touchable newspapers – and going online, it was hoped a new generation of digital papers could continue the quality offerings previously provided from the printing presses.

But these new alternatives are at risk of being snuffed out. The huge rounds of job cuts at places like Buzzfeed and Mic, once carrying the hope that journalism can be reinvented for the digital age, has caused optimism to plunge yet further.

Some thoughtful and useful analysis of the problem has been emerging.

Dame Frances Cairncros in the UK has been tasked by the Government with considering the question of what legislators could, and should, do to help the cause of journalism. Local journalism is especially deemed to need additional help.

Cairncross’ report had some helpful, constructive, and well explained recommendations. They include tax breaks and a look at the competitive landscape surrounding advertising sales.

But the overall tone is hardly optimistic. “…there are promising examples of innovations to bolster the provision of public-interest news, but these are unlikely to be sufficient” is the blunt assessment.

The public interest isn’t enough to keep the public interested, Dame Cairncross seems to fear.

Speaking as someone who is developing one of those innovations, I am a little more optimistic than Dame Frances.

I am a little more optimistic than Dame Frances.

I think the answer to what will save the media is the media itself. Great journalism can drive journalism back to its position of social and economic greatness if it has the right tools to generate the revenues it needs in response.

For me the issue is simple. If we are going to make journalism more profitable, it needs to have more sources of revenue. Advertising is slipping away, so that can’t be it. The only other source of revenue is consumers themselves.

This seems like an almighty challenge to many in the world of journalism, almost a holy grail. They have spent nearly three decades now trying and failing to create a sustainable business model and nothing has worked. Now that their whole businesses are failing this has become more than just a frustration, it has become a matter of survival.

Subscriptions have been the best hope. Several big US newspaper sites have subscribers numbering in the millions, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue. They are, by any measure, a huge success.

However, the subscription model has limits. For a newspaper site to have millions of users, they have to turn away tens of millions who want their product but are unwilling to commit to paying for it every day. For most so called “content” sites, their product just isn’t right to persuade people to make a similar commitment, however popular it may be. For most consumers, promising to stay loyal to one product, and pay for it every month, it too big a price to pay for what is often just a casual desire to see something.

The subscription model has limits

This problem is seen up close in the Cairncross report. Local sites, it says, struggle to engage local people even when they’re available for free. No subscription offer will save them: there just aren’t enough people who will make the commitment. They’re stuck.

Lots of ideas were mooted in response to this.

The finger of blame for the malaise is often pointed at the big platforms (Facebook and Google, primarily) for robbing the publishers of audience and revenue. The answer proposed is to make them pay: force them to cough up some of their ill-gotten gains to help pay for the journalism they exploit.

Another version of the same idea is the suggestion that some of the money paid to the BBC by licence fee payers should be diverted to pay for “public interest” journalism, reflecting and compensating for the distorting effect of the well-funded and always free news operation the BBC has on the internet.

Cairncross swerves these suggestions, thankfully, so there’s no need to explain why I don’t think they won’t work (although I’ve explained that elsewhere if you’re interested).

I think the answer is simpler.

Consumer revenues are key, but subscriptions have limits. The opportunity for publishers lies with the “middle majority” of consumers who are willing to pay but unwilling to make the commitment of multiple – or any – subscriptions.

The opportunity for publishers lies with the “middle majority” of consumers

The opportunity is tantalising. There are tens of millions of UK consumers in this category. With the right product offered by publishers at the right price, they can not only become direct sources of revenue but the amount they spend is limited only by the ability of publishers to appeal to them. Given the amount of time people spend consuming media on their devices, that’s a pretty high ceiling.

What is needed is the right tool so that any publisher can charge the right price for each part their product. The internet has been notably bad at developing this capability. While it’s still possible to walk into a newsagent and hand over a few coins in return for a newspaper or magazine, the online equivalent is nigh on impossible.

Online you must sign up for each thing you want to buy. If you do (but most don’t), it’s a faff, form filling, and credit card entering. You must agree to subscribe – or at least trial a subscription and then remember to cancel it before it gets too expensive.

Axate has made a tool to address this. It’s federated across as many publishers as want to implement it. They can price their product however they want and, once signed up, a consumer who has an Axate wallet can use it on any participating site, paying whatever small amount the publisher asks without any commitment to spendany more.

With Axate, payment becomes an option for any publisher.

With this tool in place, payment becomes an option for any publisher. They can put a price sticker on any of their products – allowing consumers to buy as little as one article.

For this to succeed though, there needs to be a product worth paying for. No disappointed customer will ever come back for more

That means the key challenge for publishers is a creative one, as it always used to be. Needing to focus on pleasing their consumer, not their advertisers, requires them to invest in differentiating their product and making it more appealing than their competitors.

The challenge for publishers is to maintain standards so each visit by consumers will be deemed worthwhile, worth paying for, and crucially – worth coming back for more.

The key challenge for publishers is a creative one

This can be a liberating realisation for publishers. The editors of one of the sites we’re talking to, a local newspaper which has a close relationship with its audience, literally breathed a sigh of relief when they realized they could stop doing frequent but worthless short stories to generate traffic. They want to do fewer, longer and more relevant stories. Their plan is to spend more of their time and resource on things like the local council, local sports teams and local events, and ask their readers to pay a fair price.

Success for them is both tantalising and achievable and I think they’re going to set the template for commercially successful local news. I think they can confound Dame Cairncross’ pessimism.

Success for others is easy to see too, whether they’re digital businesses looking to diversify their dependence on advertising, or old-media companies reviving the fortunes of their well-known brands. Being able to set the right price, and all but eliminating the barriers for consumers, opens a world of liberating possibilities.

This business model also means that publishers can generate more value by collaborating than through trying to lock users and products away behind walls and barriers.

To return to the conundrum that Cairncross has been asked to wrestle with, at a simple level the answer is clear: we need more journalists well enough resourced to do the things they need to do. Inform, delight and entertain their consumers. Hold power to account without being easily cowed. Be driven by the trust of their readers, and fearful of the backlash if they ever break that trust.

Journalism reached its greatest heights of power, influence, profitability and democratic conscience when millions of people developed a habit of spending tiny amounts of money, frequently, on their products. When they bought a newspaper two or three times a week, perhaps just on Saturday’s for the football, or on Sunday for the big political analysis.

Great journalism can reach even more people now; and indeed it does. The internet has removed the need for huge infrastructure to enter the market so it can be more competitive and diverse than ever before.

Axate has restored the ability for flexible payments to be the norm

Axate has restored the ability for flexible payments to be the norm, not the exception, and for publishers to charge the right price – their price. The challenge now is creative. Who can create the best journalism and the best product?

It’s going to be exciting finding out.

This article has been edited to reflect Agate has changed name to Axate.