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Guardian appeals directly to readers to fund its journalism – but will its plea pay off?

The Guardian has taken the bold step of engaging with its readers around content compensation. Earlier this week, editor Katharine Viner took the opportunity to directly ask readers to help fund the Guardian’s extensive coverage of Brexit. By publishing a post on its website and distributing a newsletter to the Guardian’s membership base, Viner encouraged readers to support the publisher through monthly contributions or a one-off payment which it would use to continue investigating the implications of Brexit and develop “in-depth, thoughtful, and well-reported journalism”.

In recent months publishers such as City AM and the Wall Street Journal have started to engage with their ad block users by asking them to turn off their ad block software to view content – but this is one of the first times we’ve seen a premium publisher address its wider audience base – and while the results remain to be seen, this is a big step forward in advancing the collective dialogue around content compensation.

For too long content development efforts have relied on the implicit value exchange between publishers and their audience of “view ads in return for content”. The Guardian is now working to make this transaction explicit by transparently communicating with consumers about the extensive investment required to produce high quality content.

While the rising adoption of ad blocking software has helped to raise awareness of content compensation challenges and forms an important part of the narrative, it will ultimately be a means to an end. This move from the Guardian signals a step forward by a major global publisher to begin content compensation conversations across an entire audience, rather than just ad block users.

We can draw parallels between the digital publishing industry’s current predicament and that of the music industry’s evolution. Music sharing site Napster played a central role in the early 2000s in raising awareness of the changing digital consumption desires of consumers and provided a wake-up call to existing players in the industry that change was required to survive. At its peak, Napster had 57 million users. This radical change in user behaviour gave way to new business models such as Spotify, iTunes and Pandora, which were created to satisfy consumer appetite while providing a user experience consumers were willing to pay for. While in some ways we have Napster to thank for encouraging these changes, it is no longer part of the equation; by 2006 it had fewer than 1 million users left and in 2013 it was acquired by music subscription service Rhapsody.

Similar to file sharing, the growth of ad blocker usage is serving as a catalyst for change with publisher responses varying from demanding improved ad creative to preventing access to content for users that block ads. While the strategy of direct consumer messaging may not yet be the norm, the Guardian could signal the first major publisher to experiment with moving away from communicating solely to the ad block user base, instead focusing on a wider discussion about compensation preference.

With ad block usage expected to continue to grow, publishers are facing multiple threats to the sustainability of existing business models and must work to create transparent, viable solutions. By following the Guardian’s lead and taking proactive steps to re-engage with consumers to establish an explicit value exchange through direct messaging, publishers can help safeguard revenues while focusing on the creation of high quality content and greater user experiences.

Ben Barokas is CEO at Sourcepoint