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The shift from ad-driven to platform-subsidized publishing

Jessica Toonkel of The Information sat down with Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed — one thing he said:

“I think that the future for free news will be five or six platforms that all have scale. That will cover the cost of journalism. So if we do a piece on the ground in Minneapolis about the Black Lives Matter protests, and we are spending a lot on travel and to make sure our reporters are safe—and with Covid, there are a lot more safety issues to focus on—that story can live on Apple News, on the Facebook News tab and on our own operated site, so smart news can live on.”

I feel like this has been slowly but surely happening, though no one has come out and explicitly said it like this yet. There’s a very real possibility that the future of “free” news is that it’s no longer subsidized by ads, but rather by the tech platforms directly.

As Peretti notes, Facebook is already doing this. Google is about to start. And Apple is doing a revenue share with Apple News+, but probably won't be far behind in paying directly upfront to license if the competitors are and key partners are clearly pushing for that (and certainly if Apple News+ doesn’t start working).

Now, ads won’t go away — and certainly they’ll remain a key part on the owned and operated sites, but they’re clearly not making the ends meet for this type of content anymore. Moreover, they’ve created some truly awful reading experiences, and thus, product experiences. So while there are of course obvious downsides in such subsidization, unless we can figure out a better way (beyond direct payment, which will work for some, but not all content), it seems like the path right now.