Latching onto a payment model to fit all news tastes

June 22, 2021 | 15:54
Following in the footsteps of popular giants in the traditional press world, Vietnamese media groups are more keen to examine the prospects of new models that would charge readers for content online.
Latching onto a payment model to fit all news tastes
The way people consume news has altered drastically over the past couple of decades, and figuring out how to charge still poses an issue. Photo: Le Toan

In early June, The New York Times (NYT) announced there were 7.8 million subscribers on its print and digital platforms, 6.9 million of whom subscribed for its online news and applications. In the fourth quarter of 2020, during the US presidential elections, the NYT saw an increase of about 627,000 digital subscriptions, gaining 2.3 million digital-only subscriptions by the end of 2020.

Now, the NYT is targeting 10 million readers by 2025.

The NYT is not the first newspaper to begin charging readers. In 1996, The Wall Street Journal pioneered subscriptions and now has about two million subscribers. It was followed by The Times (UK) in 2010, which currently has about 500 million paid subscribers. Along with NYT, several of the world’s major newspapers such as the Washington Post, The Guardian, Financial Times, Economist, and German tabloid Bild also began to let readers pay for their articles.

According to data published in 2019 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (Oxford University), 69 per cent of the 212 largest news agencies in seven countries have been collecting fees for their articles.

At that time in Vietnam, the issue of press fee collection was initiated by Le Quoc Minh, editor-in-chief of VietnamPlus. In 2012, it started experimenting with fee collection and officially started to collect press fees in 2018. Manager Magazine also collected indirect press fees under the form of buying paper newspapers for free e-newspapers.

In March, e-magazine Ngay Nay launched an online premium newspaper. On June 15, VietNamNet also officially implemented a partial fee collection from its Premium column.

The issue of paid subscriptions has received special attention from a series of newspapers in Vietnam since the pandemic broke out, resulting in plummeting revenues and paper newspaper circulation, in addition to the domination of online advertising and cross-border platforms such as Facebook and Google.

New path for the press

According to Pham Anh Tuan, editor-in-chief of VietNamNet, the press has never faced such difficulties before. “First, there is now fierce competition – not only between newspapers but also between newspapers, social media, and online platforms, where contents are entertaining and easily attract readers’ curiosity. In addition, the change in readers attention and taste, coupled with management issues, makes it impossible for the press to lead in the battles of views and non-standard advertisements, while still ensuring the coverage of operating costs and staff’s income,” Tuan explained.

One of the solutions that VietNamNet deployed within just six months was to build a subscription model – a difficult task because the success rate of online newspapers in the world remains generally low.

“A few e-newspapers in Vietnam started subscription models and all abandoned them as they were unsuccessful. However, we identify this model as the inevitable direction of e-journalism in the future. Readers want the truth without pressure for views or interference from advertisers. This is what Vietnamese journalism should develop towards to,” said Tuan.

As for Tran Tien Duan, editor-in-chief of VietnamPlus, revenue of the e-newspaper mainly comes from advertising and communication contracts. However, there is a big shift as many businesses choose advertising through social media instead of through e-newspapers.

The transformation of advertising methods and the reduction of revenue presents an economic problem for newspaper leaders. There must be new forms to develop e-newspapers, in which fee collection could be one solution. Many newspapers in the world such as the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times had early successes with subscription models on digital platforms, even before online advertising slowed down in recent years.

“In addition, a harsh reality emerged in the last few years. Up to 80 per cent of digital advertising revenue has flown into the pockets of Google and Facebook. Therefore, newspapers can no longer depend on advertising revenue,” said Duan.

Ho Quang Loi, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Journalists Association, said that press agencies must change and innovate to survive. Newspapers must improve the quality of journalistic products, especially putting their own identity into products to gain revenue. They also must make use of technology to improve their communication capacity.

Charging fees for newspapers could be an inevitable trend worldwide, but newspapers may need to determine the right strategy to secure revenue flows in the long term.

Le Quoc Minh, editor-in-chief of Nhan Dan, said that e-newspaper fees are only a part of the revenue from readers. “This cannot be a lifesaver for all newspapers, because there’s no guarantee for complete success, and it might not work for all of them,” Minh said, adding that, “We need to carefully study the situation around the globe as well as here in Vietnam. There are many studies on e-newspaper subscription models, and each country has a different picture.”

Finding the right model

Newspapers around the world collect fees in several ways. The most common models constitute basic fees which allow readers to access certain digital content based on criteria established by e-newspapers. Such premium fees then allow readers to access any content with a monthly, quarterly, and annual paid subscription.

In Vietnam, the most common method currently applied by VietnamPlus, Ngay Nay, and VietNamNet is a basic subscription for special content. These publications still allow readers to read most of the articles for free, only charging for a few special articles. The number of paid articles accounts for less than 5 per cent of the total number of articles published daily.

This model is considered the most appropriate in Vietnam, where the habit of reading free online newspapers has existed for more than 20 years and is difficult to change. The issue that most newspapers are concerned about is whether readers will be willing to pay for content or not.

Paid journalism is meant to meet the desires of readers. “Newspapers need to determine what content is deemed valuable enough to charge for it. It cannot be a simple press release but must be news that can meet the needs and tastes of users. There needs to be a serious survey, and even tests to probe the demand, newspapers cannot make emotional decisions,” said Minh.

Duan revealed that the content that VietnamPlus’ paid content focuses on politics, society, and world news, as well as economic and technological insights. These articles are analysed from multiple perspectives, and more importantly, have a lot of exclusive information.

Ngay Nay also positions its Special Today column with a fee for in-depth articles with views and analyses from experts and popular writers, without the appearance of advertising.

As for VietNamNet’s Pham Anh Tuan, this newspaper is set to develop potentially sellable content such as exclusive content, original data packages which are useful for readers such as economic information and sports analyses.

Huu Tuan - Journalist

As they are making large profits from the content of Vietnamese newspapers, Facebook and Google should have the responsibility and obligation to pay fees to local press agencies.

In Vietnam, the biggest competitors of newspapers are not other newspapers, television, and radio broadcasters, but cross-border platforms such as Facebook and Google.

Well-invested and elaborated articles by mainstream press agencies are published, and a few minutes later already appear on Facebook and Google. The news then is not cited from its primary sources, but from news sites without license, personal blogs, and social networks.

Hundreds of thousands of videos and movies have been placed on YouTube and Facebook for advertisement purposes. These products are injected with ads to collect money on customer views and clicks. The earnings will then flow into the pockets of cross-border platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and also their distributors.

Press agencies, which invest in people, equipment, and time to produce quality content are exploited by Facebook and Google. Moreover, Facebook has become a platform for countless inaccurate and malicious pieces that violate Vietnamese law.

Facebook and Google – which have no newsroom, reporters, editors, or content producers – attract 2.4 billion people worldwide, including 70 million Vietnamese. An estimated $1 billion in online advertising revenue generated in Vietnam in 2020 fell into the pockets of Facebook and Google. However, they did not pay a single cent for newspapers and TV stations that produced the content.

Vietnamese media is working without these platforms paying for their profit. A piece of the advertising budget that big brands and Vietnamese businesses spend on the press is shrinking, causing a wave of demands for cross-border platforms to pay for media agencies. The confrontation between Facebook and the Australian press this past February was the last straw in this situation.

Figures from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission showed that Facebook only paid $20 million in tax on revenues of $712.7 million. In 2020, Facebook and Google achieved a huge revenue of $268 billion, but only spent a meagre amount of $900 million to pay some press agencies.

The fact that Facebook and Google have to pay press agencies is indisputable. Cross-border platforms and social networks that use the products of press agencies for profit must have the responsibility and obligation to share those earnings with copyright holders.

Nguyen Thanh Lam, director of the Authority of Press under the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), stated that the scale of press piracy on Facebook and Google platforms in Vietnam is at an alarming rate. These violations are gradually reducing and eroding the revenue, resources, and intellectual property of the mainstream press.

The piracy of websites such as Facebook and Google not only causes headaches in Vietnam but also in many countries worldwide. To solve this problem, news agencies need to make the violation of these cross-border advertising platforms public.

In addition, it is further necessary to establish an alliance consisting of newspapers, reputable websites, and also technology companies in order to support and promote each other in regaining market share of online advertising.

As for Le Quang Tu Do, deputy director of the Radio-Television and Electronic Information Management Department under the MIC, Facebook and Google are currently making concessions to several countries such as Australia. Plus, other countries are also fiercely demanding Google and Facebook to pay royalties for the press.

In that general trend, Vietnam should consider negotiating with these platforms so that the domestic press can get an agreement that brings them a legitimate source of revenue, which has been stolen for a long time.

Dinh Trong Thinh from the Academy of Finance recommended that Vietnam needs to develop a specific roadmap for legalisation and provision of appropriate terms and compliance criteria to ensure that payments are properly distributed to all press agencies.

Likewise, relevant ministries and branches must work together to support and accompany the alliance of Vietnamese press agencies.

* The views and opinions expressed in are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Vietnam Investment Review or the Ministry of Planning and Investment.

By Tu An

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