The Nickel & Diming of Democracy

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The Nickel & Diming of Democracy

By Jaci Clement,

Now that we’ve entered that phase of election season where all we can do is hurry and wait for the final results, it’s a good time to look at what’s shifting in the media landscape. Right now, we’re watching the money. 

News of the moment is deconstructing Elon Musk’s dismantling of Twitter and its exodus of advertisers, while Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta is laying off 7,000 as revenues decline. The question is, where is the money headed, if not on social media channels? 

Advertising forecasts are a bit all over the map, but some trends are emerging: Social media ad spending is retreating, search advertising is increasing (attributed to the pandemic brutally forcing our shopping into the digital realm), and video ads and print advertising are gaining traction. 

If you’re a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer, the message is clear: Everything old is new again. Search ads are little more than the old “telephone book” in digital form. Television ads were the things we expected to interrupt news and entertainment programs — if nothing else, they served as designated snack times. Every now and again, a brilliant ad campaign would come along, and it was a welcomed enhancement to the entire viewing experience. Ads in newspapers and magazines offered a tactile experience, and a level of trust unmatched by digital advertising that disappears as your news feed updates. 

But for millennials and the Zs, advertising as we knew it is a novelty, which may explain TikTok’s popularity, since it’s little more than infomercials — again, something from another era.

Streaming services are the hot spot right now — Netflix and Disney+ are making news for unveiling ad tiers, which basically means, you get a cheaper subscription if you’re willing to sit through a few ads. On Amazon Prime Video, the freevee channel lets you watch old television shows without paying a subscription fee. You have to watch some ads during the programs. That’s all.

While these streaming services are simply acting like old-school over-the-air television, they’re also tackling a much broader issue: Changing our consumption habits. If successful, they may save democracy, too. 

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Before digital came along, television and print advertising is what kept the news business alive. In some cases, subscription fees were also part of the equation — primarily to justify circulation claims, by which advertising prices would be set. Then the internet burst onto the scene and the news business model went kablooey. 

Newspapers put content online, available for free, even if a paid subscription was needed for the print edition. The lesson taught to news consumers? In the online world, the news is free. 

When demand for print declined, the industry introduced digital subscription fees. That move meant changing the news consumer’s mindset, which went from paid, to free, to paid, for news. How much are you willing to pay for a subscription? That became the new game. (Closely watched, news that kept you informed touted a much lower asking price than news that promised to save democracy.)

Next, news outlets introduced a higher subscription fee, one that touted an “ad-free” experience. Again, another mindset change for news consumers. To help the movement, ads were portrayed as an annoying waste of time. You certainly wanted nothing to do with that.

As things stand now, we’re about to come full circle. News outlets have lived with the subscription-based business model long enough to know it doesn’t work. And that means re-educating the news consumer, once again, on what to expect from a news product that now wants you to love it for its news and its advertising. 

Watch the streaming wars closely.

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