Dame Frances Cairncross speaking at Digital Publishing Summit (30 October 2019)

Lessons from a subscription-only model and ‘online wallets’ could offer a lifeline to struggling news publications, according to Dame Francis Cairncross, the author of the Cairncross Review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism.

Speaking at the AOP (Association For Online Publishers) Digital Publishing Summit today (30 October 2019), Cairncross welcomed experimentation across the industry to answer the most pressing question of all: how do publishers get people to pay for news?

She pointed out it is not a case of people being unwilling to pay for digital products: the success of Spotify and online courses proves otherwise.

"There are things people will pay for. We have to find the right mechanism and then we have to create the right culture," Cairncross explained.

There has never been a more crucial time for publishers to innovate. Two publishers stand out in her mind as those who have adopted a significant culture-shift to funding models.

One of those is 'micropayment' platform Axate, an ‘online wallet’ publishers can utilise to charge audiences for reading individual articles

It allows publishers to meet readers in the middle, recognising many are not willing to make the big financial commitment of a subscription.

"Nobody very much wants to put down £150 for a year’s subscription to an online paper when they could probably get quite a lot of it free, but they might pay 20p or £1," said Cairncross.

That is not to say subscriptions do not work, though. Online-only sports publication The Athletic, which launched in the UK in August 2019, sells exclusively through an ad-free subscription. It only offers free content through a week-long trial period.

Being the first to offer a premium subscription in this space and the ability to pluck reporters from rival titles, in fact, assures readers they are buying into a quality product. It is a space she is watching closely.

Neither of these models will yield a single-solution to the funding problem though, she said. But both ‘experiments’ will ultimately shake loose meaningful trends in terms of what audiences are prepared to pay for - it is only a matter of time.

The importance of diversifying revenue streams is perhaps more important than ever with uncertain times ahead, characterised by recent job cuts at major publishers like the Evening Standard.

"We all know that established players often don’t come through technological revolutions in one piece, and there are plenty of examples in other industries where they haven’t done so.

"But the industry, I think, will survive and we need it to survive for the sake of democracy. It’s our defence against companies, politicians and public servants that behave badly."

Get to grips with a framework for planning audience growth at Newsrewired on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to for the full agenda and tickets

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