How Google Could Offer “All Access” News Subscriptions & Help Journalism
Think of it as "Spotify for news" where for a monthly fee, Google searchers would have access to subscription content from a range of news publishers.
People pay for services that provide access to a wide range of music, TV shows, movies and even books for a low monthly fee. Why not the same for news content? Perhaps such a service offered by Google — call it Google News All Access — could help the search giant with the criticisms it has taken from some publishers while also helping the journalism those publishers and others produce.
Attacks On Google By Publishers
Over the years, Google has faced no lack of attacks from newspaper publishers who have positioned Google as some type of monster aimed at stealing their traffic. In Spain, Google closed Google News last year (sort of) after a news link tax was passed there. Sweden’s considering one. Germany passed one that caused some publishers to reverse their positions.
(As an aside, these attacks make the move by some publications to participate in Facebook Instant Articles bizarre. Google gets attacked as a newspaper rival for sending publishers huge amounts of free traffic directly to their sites. Meanwhile Facebook, where users consume lots of news content, is embraced as a publishing partner).
In an effort to mollify Europe, Google recently established a $150 million Digital News Initiative fund to promote innovation. This is in addition to a different $70 million innovation fund that Google started in 2013.
If we really want to get innovative, how about a way for anyone to easily read content from a wide number of publications for a monthly fee? That type of plan might be a perfect solution to some of the industry’s complaints about Google. And Google might be the ideal partner to experiment with it.
Spotify For News
Think of it as a Spotify or Hulu for news content. With those services, subscribers pay one monthly fee to access a wide range of content from a variety of music companies or video content producers.
With a similar Google News All Access service, perhaps subscribers might pay $8-$10 per month. In return, they have access to news content from participating publishers that they discover either in their searches on Google or when browsing headlines through Google News. It might be an unlimited model or perhaps there’s a generous amount of articles that can be read before a cap kicks in.
Yes, Google’s tried something that sounds similar before, Google One Pass, which launched in 2011 and closed the following year. But One Pass was really designed as a system for buying subscriptions to individual publications, not to provide access to news content from a wide variety of publishers for a single fee. In other words, OnePass might have made it easier to buy a subscription to the New York Times for a high annual fee. If you wanted access to content to the Wall Street Journal, you’d pay another high fee.
That type of system makes little sense when you consider that the typical person accessing Google News is exposed to content from many different news publishers. Many of these publishers would love to be paid by those reading their articles, in addition to showing ads. But few “drive by” visitors who come in via Google News are likely to pay a high annual subscription to a publication they might never visit again.
This is where a Google News All Access system could help. With it, Google might divide the subscription fees it receives to publishers proportionally, based on the clicks to paid content that it sends to each of them. Perhaps some premium publications might get a higher rate. No doubt, some experimenting with the formula would have to be done. But it could be done.
Pushback On Potential Objections
Naysayers could take aim at such a system in a variety of ways. It might cannibalize higher-priced annual subscriptions that individual publications already sell. It might not generate that much income for participating publications. Perhaps subscribers might object to content also carrying ads.
Maybe. But maybe not, and experimenting poses little to lose. Let me counter some of the objections that I’ve anticipated above.
Cannibalize annual subscriptions? I find it difficult to believe that anyone who really wants to read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal so much as to buy annual subscriptions now is going to turn to a Google program as a cheaper alternative. It won’t provide the convenience for those who read on those sites directly, to browse stories. It won’t supplant the support of apps that both those publications have. It could have reasonable per publication caps.
Most importantly, since both of those publications currently take part in First Click Free (more on that in a bit), everyone already has free access to their stories. An All Access program actually helps turn some of that existing free access into paid revenue.
As for not generating much income, who knows? But any All Access program would provide at least more income than newspapers already get from Google News, which is nothing. Publications already participate in Google News just for the traffic. Even publications that have criticized Google News still often eagerly participate in hopes of gaining visitors, who in turn generate ad revenue. All Access, if it became real, would provide a new stream of subscription income where none exists now. It would be frosting on the cake, so to speak. Who doesn’t like frosting?
Would subscribers to All Access object if they ended up on pages that also carry ads? So far, that hasn’t stopped subscribers who buy directly from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, which, despite high annual fees, show ads. Indeed, most newspapers and magazines with print subscriptions have long charged and shown advertising. I doubt continuing to do the same is going to be a big problem.
More Visibility For Subscription Content
If those aren’t good enough reasons for publishers to participate, I’ve got one more huge incentive: even more traffic. Right now, publications with strict paywalls find that Google doesn’t give their articles as much visibility as free content or content that uses Google’s First Click Free program. That program is a way for publications with paywalls to let one-time visitors effectively receive free articles.
Google suppresses paid news content because users typically aren’t happy about encountering it. They’ll click back and search for a free article, instead. But I think it’s time that Google stop discriminating against paid news content. It doesn’t do the same to paid content from the entertainment industry. The same rules should apply to news.
However, it doesn’t help the news industry if Google sends more people to its paid content and they still refuse to pay, because of high annual subscriptions intended for regular readers. That’s why an All Access-type of program seems an essential companion to making more paid/subscription content visible.
Is It Time For Google To Rank News Content Behind Paywalls Better? is my story on our Search Engine Land sister site that explores the visibility issues in more depth.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to how a Google News All Access system would work or even that it would work at all. However, it seems worth exploring.