Rebuilding the news bundle

One of the best ways to understand the first generation or so of digital media is through the idea of breaking the bundle.

Traditional mass media could be conceptualized as a bundle. Albums, cable TV, weekly magazines, the daily newspaper: You had to buy the whole thing, even if you want just one part. The bundle was perfectly constructed for the mass media age, what Vin Crosbie calls the age of scarcity.

But digital media brought, in Crosbie’s terms, the age of abundance. Which then brought a decade of bundle-breaking, starting with the music industry, where the iTunes Store allowed people to buy individual songs rather than full albums. Bundle-breaking touched all aspects of media; in the news industry, it was how we atomized the news and how the stream of information became more important than the story.

This idea of breaking the bundle was at the core of everything the news industry did throughout the first generation of digital media. How’d that work out for us?

There’s no magic bullet that will financially save the news industry. But in 2023, I think you’ll start seeing a rebuilding of the news bundle.

You’re seeing the rise of bundles in entertainment and the streaming space. Like a lot of you, I subscribe to Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+ for one combined price, and my HBO Max subscription is part of my AT&T wireless plan. These bundles are helping solve the subscription-pocalypse — the overabundance of streaming services that can make us feel like we’ve reached critical mass. (Most of us say no to at least one streaming service, right?).

In 2023, I think we’ll start seeing similar bundles in the news industry.

Let’s take The Athletic, which was bought by The New York Times at the start of 2022. We’re past the point where every year is a referendum on the idea or success of The Athletic. It’s firmly a part of both the Times’ portfolio and the sports media ecosystem. As of December 2022, you can buy a digital subscription to the Times and have The Athletic bundled in (along with Wirecutter and the Times’ cooking and games products). That makes sense, and more companies should follow suit.

Take the largest newspaper chain in the country. My hometown paper is a Gannett joint. I can subscribe to it for one price. But what would it mean to the company, to the paper, to the journalists and their work, and to readers if that subscription price included access to all of the company’s papers — not just USA Today Sports+, but all stories in all departments?

This isn’t as easy as wishing it so. There are no doubt complications I haven’t considered, business contracts that would need renegotiation, revenue-sharing agreements that would have to be created, maintained, and adjusted. But too often, the news industry has approached its business model from the myopic standpoint of what’s good for the company — rather than looking at what their customers are doing.

The overarching lesson of digital media’s first generation is that the users have the power. As Crosbie said, it’s an age of abundance, not scarcity. The news industry needs to finally recognize this and act. It’s not about giving people a personalized news experience or a seat in the metaverse. It’s about giving them value for their money. It’s about giving readers a reason to subscribe, and then to renew that subscription.

The bundle is dead. Long live the bundle.

Brian Moritz is an associate professor at the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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