Scroll: no ads for a self-care journalism style

Last week we saw the birth of Scroll, a new and unique online platform aiming to serve both readers and publishers. The subscription-based service provides an Internet experience free of ads and pop-ups for readers, while paying member publications a portion of their subscription revenue. For the past couple of years, the advertising model has ceased to be the industry’s panacea (read The news subscription model has reached Spain, and What the almost 3,000 journalism job cuts tell us about the media industry), but still, media outlets cannot live without it, and readers have to put up with clogged websites, self-playing videos and slow Internet. 

Two overlapping trends explain the birth of Scroll. On the one hand, journalism production is shifting both due to its varied revenue model and our times’ zeitgeist, preferring a less is more, a quality over quantity mindset. On the other, that same zeitgeist makes readers value the cleanness of a website’s design, long-form stories, and the feeling they are helping a larger cause than their own—their outlets’ financial health. That’s where Scroll comes in, capitalizing on these trends while hopefully providing publishers with higher revenues than they would get from ads.

Photo by Thomas Q on Unsplash, slightly modified.

Scroll was launched on January 28th as a subscription-based platform, where users pay $4.99 per month to access the service. The first subscribers (founding members) get 50% off the first six months, paying only $2.49 per month. Like many other services, Scroll gives a 30-day free trial for new subscribers. Scroll offers a cleaner Internet by getting publishing partners to forgo ad revenues and trust their subscription service. The start-up has signed up over 300 sites, including native digital outlets like Business Insider, Buzzfeed, The Verge, and Gizmodo, as well as the satiric site The Onion, and more traditional publications like The Atlantic and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Subscribers can access those pages through Scroll without ads or commercials: a clear value proposition.

 

In the short term, the results are immediate. For readers, pages load faster, as they have fewer trackers, and the design is cleaner and easier to read. For publishers, Scroll is also an asset. The company distributes 70% of subscribers’ fees among member sites depending on how much time readers spend on them and, almost as important, shares its data with publishers. The platform is also transparent for subscribers, as it gives them a breakdown on where their money goes. According to numbers reported by Scroll, member publications get $0.016 per page view with the platform, while they only receive $0.011 with a standard ad. Plus, Scroll presents an alternative for readers with ad blockers, who contribute zero dollars to publishers through ads. 

In the long term, Scroll’s impact could be much broader by reverting the trend from short catchy headlines to more elaborated stories. With the rise of ads as the primary revenue stream in the 2000s, publishers had to get more and more readers to their sites—the pages would translate to ad impressions and thus to ad dollars. Digital native companies like Buzzfeed and Vice benefitted from the system, as reported by ex-New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson in her book “Merchants of Truth.” Both publications, like many other sites, understood how algorithms work and decided to publish content that would go viral. In general, it was low-quality content, barely worked, and, on many occasions, just outrageous. Their goal was to get clicks—thus, the clickbait culture. Ad dollars started pouring into these sites, while traditional newspapers kept losing money. Soon, they also imitated them by publishing shorter news with catchy headlines and viral content. 

However, in the past two years, that bubble burst. Last January, Buzzfeed fired 250 people, as social media companies ate most of the advertising pie (read Digital advertising is not enough to keep digital news outlets afloat). Multiple publications have shifted their business models by prioritizing more stable revenue streams, like subscriptions, donations, and memberships. Slowly but surely, they are trying to reduce their dependence on advertising. With it, a new—and old, because it has always existed—type of journalism is re-emerging: “slow journalism.” Papers like The Guardian, Le Monde, and The Times of London have reduced the number of articles they publish, increased their quality and—unsurprisingly but happily—gained more traction among readers. According to The Guardian’s editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, her outlet cut weekly story production by one third, and traffic went up.

 

Other start-up publications like British Tortoise Media are also offering “slow-journalism” solutions, a few articles a day, so readers are informed but not overwhelmed (read Slow journalism to cut through the clutter).

Scroll aims to continue that trend by further reducing the impact of ad dollars. If publications depend on subscription fees more than on advertising revenues, then the content they’ll produce will dramatically change. We will see—as we have seen in the past couple of years—the return of extended features, quality journalism, and thoroughly reported stories. It is for this reason that Scroll seems so appealing. You will feel that if you sign up for it, you will not only get a better Internet experience but also influence the evolution of the news industry. 

However, Scroll can fail to an envelopment strategy by companies that share the same user base and have stronger brands and financial position, namely Apple, Amazon and Google. Apple+ already offers bundled content, free of ads (read Apple intends to save journalism… at a price), but does not share data with publishers, and although it offers more to the reader than Scroll, it also has a higher subscription fee. Additionally, if users already subscribe to a myriad of services and are not particularly bothered by ads, there might be no reason to subscribe to another platform (read No more subscriptions, please). The risk for Scroll is twofold—it can be eaten by the competition, or it can remain a very niche product. Neither sound good.

For now, the one-week-old Scroll has made small waves in the media industry, as it opens the door to a new revenue stream. Ads and subscriptions are two revenue sources—neither perfect, nor unique—that can be complemented with other income streams, such as e-commerce or events. Scroll presents an appealing middle ground that capitalizes on the journalistic trend of slow journalism. The immediate future will tell us of its success or failure.

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