Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Media’s Paywall Obsession Won’t Work for Most

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

This is an important point, and one we’ve tried to make a few times in the past, highlighting that all of the metrics you hear about concerning audience side are complete bullshit, but everyone in the ecosystem has strong incentives to keep up the charade. At least they do while they’re pitching advertisers. When the actual hard subscription numbers come down, it can be a real wake up call. I’m reminded, of course, of the newspaper Newsday that implemented a paywall with great fanfare… and three months later had a grand total of 35 subscribers. Thirty. Five.

And they were hardly the only one. We’ve written time after time after time after time of paywalls failing for newspapers, and actually doing a lot more overall harm in terms of reducing both audience and influence.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. What follows is not exactly new, but I want to set something up in your mind.

You used to have to pay for the entirety of your local paper if you wanted news in print form, and it worked even if you only read a few stories a day, and you had to flip through loads of big ads to get to the handful of stories you actually cared about. All of this came from one or two sources, largely because you couldn’t live in, like, Lowell, Indiana and get that day’s Los Angeles Times dropped on your doorstep every morning. It didn’t matter that the local paper was comprised of a mix of original and syndicated reporting; it was the only way to get the news.

Now, you can read far more stories in a day and never touch your local paper. And why would you when, through a horrible downward spiral of business choices, it may now be almost entirely Associated Press stories that you can get anywhere? Besides, the big scoops largely go to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Just look at this year’s list of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism — of the fourteen award categories, fully half were won by the Times, Washington Post, Reuters, and USA Today. Compare the clustered wins of 2018 against the more widely-awarded prizes twenty or thirty years ago.

Many of us will, therefore, only pay a monthly fee towards one or two publications that we find really valuable; and, for most of us, that’s probably a national broadsheet “paper of record” rather than a thin local edition. But the national papers of record can’t realistically cover all local news of relevance across an entire country. Also, I’ve focused on American papers here, but this is a massive problem in Canada as well, and around the world.

Like I mentioned at the top of the preceding paragraphs, I’ve been thinking about this quandary a lot, for reasons of obvious importance — the continued existence of a press covering all levels of government and activities is crucial — but also for selfish concerns: I want to find a way for Pixel Envy to support itself. What ails the news industry also affects, albeit to a far lesser extent, independent blogs and web-only publications. Relatively large websites like the Onion and Gizmodo Media Group are struggling; the Awl shuttered earlier this year. Maybe the web cannot support all of these fantastic sites — that it did at any time was maybe a silly fluke. But I think giving up and treating the web as a place for giants and nobody else would be a mistake and a great shame.

Perhaps new legislation and the reclamation of our privacy online will spur the creation of small, privacy-focused advertiser networks again, akin to the Deck Network or something like the Outline’s ad strategy. Perhaps we need more networks of bloggers, too, allowing readers to subscribe to several related websites at the same time, without creating barriers to readership with paywalls. Maybe there’s a third and fourth source of money beyond readers and advertisers — I’m not sure. But non-giant entities, whether web-only or in print, need a funding solution for the future that isn’t solely reliant upon massive traffic, Facebook referrals, or subscriptions.