Piruze Sabuncu
Feb 22, 2018

Hope, not despair, for Asia's new publishing economy

New technology and new business models mean opportunities for publishers increasingly at the margins of old revenue streams, says Piruze Sabuncu of Stripe.

Hope, not despair, for Asia's new publishing economy

Twenty-three years ago, The Business Times in Singapore embraced the World Wide Web and launched an online version of its daily newspaper, the first English-language newspaper in Asia to do so.

More than two decades later, news organisations in the region are still figuring out how to adapt to the digital age, and there are big challenges to overcome in the future. Thanks to the rise of ad blockers on desktop and mobile, the ads-based revenue model that has dominated the media industry over the last decade is showing signs of wear.

Meanwhile in January this year, Facebook dealt publishers a major blow by announcing an overhaul to its news feed algorithm that would de-prioritise content from brands and publishers. But while some were quick to paint the Facebook news as a doomsday scenario, all is not lost. New high-tech tools and platforms have emerged that may offer a lifeline to an industry that’s been treading water for decades.

Better yet, these tools aren’t just providing a short-term fix. They’re enabling entirely new business models – things like online subscriptions and marketplaces ­– to emerge that will change the way we create and consume content online, and pave the way for more sustainable companies to emerge in the years ahead.

The rise of subscription-based media businesses in Asia

It’s one of the more obvious solutions – because it’s a model the publishing industry has historically used to great success when print reigned supreme – but an increased willingness among consumers to pay for digital news subscriptions could counter the disruption in revenue for media companies, and build deeper relationships with readers in the process. Deloitte predicts that by the end of the year, 50% of adults in developed countries will have at least two online-only media subscriptions, and by the end of 2020, that number will double to four.

The Straits Times, Singapore’s largest English-language daily, implemented a paywall in 2015 to coincide with the paper’s 170th anniversary. Internationally, Wired is another publication experimenting with a paywall. Commenting on the announcement, Bob Sauerberg, chief executive of Condé Nast, said, “...if you have distinct content that is unique and special, there’s a massive trend toward subscription-based businesses.”

Piruze Sabuncu

But it’s not just the big names. Niche subscription-based publishers like Sinocism (Bill Bishop’s daily China newsletter, which boasts +30k daily email subscribers) and The Hustle (daily tech and business news) are betting on the value of high-quality, specific content sent directly to readers’ inboxes.

The Hustle, in particular, has already seen impressive traction. With more than 500k subscribers and a 40 percent open rate ­– nearly twice the industry average – it plans to expand its services in 2018. By leveraging new technology tools and services, smaller publishers (as well as bigger ones) can quickly spin up new subscription offerings and reinvent their business models in real-time.

Media as a marketplace

But it’s not just subscription models that are catching on in popularity among readers. New publishing platforms are providing opportunities to for writers to reach and monetise audiences beyond traditional media publications.

Medium, which distributes subscribers’ fees based on the number of claps writers receive on an article, is a great example. And with Purple, writers can create their own text-message subscription channels. For self-publishing, Substack gives any writer the tools to become as successful, including hosting, publishing and billing. And for one-off publications, there’s Issuu’s recently launched Digital Sales.

Of course, as writers publish on these new platforms, they will also get paid in new ways. Technology companies like Stripe, whose technology powers popular marketplaces like Kickstarter, are building backend infrastructure to facilitate the exchange of payment from reader to platform to publisher.

The new media industry is also showing signs of growth similar to its on-demand counterparts: In the last four months, Medium claps, Substack, Issuu’s Digital Sales, and Purple all emerged on top of Stripe Connect, the company’s product for marketplace businesses.

There’s still a long road ahead for the industry, but for the first time in a while, technology isn’t disrupting publishers. It is making it easier for them to experiment with alternative revenue models and deliver content in new, creative ways.

Those concerned with the long-term stability of creators, publishers and journalists should view Facebook’s recent announcement as a turning point for the entire industry -- one that will see The Straits Times, The Business Times and other notable Asian publications adapt to enjoy success in the digital economy.

Piruze Sabuncu is head of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong at Stripe.

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