On paywalls

On paywalls November 6, 2020

from pixabay.com

Regular readers at Forbes will have noticed that, as of November 1st, there is now a paywall.

I’m not happy — understandably so, as this will cut into views of the articles I write at Forbes, which matters both with respect to the compensation I earn and my ability to share my opinions with the world.  How much it will impact views, I don’t yet know (and honestly, pageviews have been pretty lousy lately, and I’m not sure if it’s just a reversion back to the mean or if something has changed in google, etc.’s algorithms that impact which news sites are featured), but I expect that it’s not just a matter of readers who reach that paywall not finding the content worth the subscription cost, but that other readers will question, with every article they might click on, “is this worth being on of my 5 free views for the month?”

But I can’t really begrudge the company its business decisions.  Through the grapevine (which I originally mistyped as “gripevine” and the typo seemed appropriate), I have heard that, as a result of the pandemic, media companies have absolutely gotten hammered, and ad revenue has dropped dramatically.  Trying to rely solely on ad revenue was not particularly realistic pre-coronatime, and makes even less sense now.

But does the situation we find ourselves in now, make any sense?

Look, I will likely be one of the last print subscribers to the Chicago Tribune, stubbornly holding on even as their news reporting declines more and more.  (I sometimes which I had kept more than just a few front sections of the paper from decades ago, but actually had had a whole newspaper, simply from back in the days when there was an entire separate section dedicated to local news, the “Tempo” section with human interest features, and so on.)  We also have digital-only subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post.  But there’s a limit to how many subscriptions any one person can purchase — heck, there’s a lot in Crain’s Chicago Business, Bloomberg and in the Wall Street Journal that I’d love to read, and even a few things in the Bond Buyer, but, unlike writers who are actually employed somewhere, I don’t have someone else to pay for all these subscriptions for me.

What’s more, the advertising-based business model makes our news reporting and news consumption worse, in general.  When I subscribe to a newspaper or news site, I support all of their reporting and assess whether I’m getting my money’s worth over the long term.  When an advertiser purchases ads, they want high engagement for each article.  Everyone chases clicks.  Everyone wants to hit the lottery (yes, that includes me, too).  And, yes, along with a then vs. now comparison of your local newspaper (if it even still exists), a comparison of CNN as its online presence has changed over time is equally instructive, with a May 2001 homepage (per the Internet Archive) featuring links to news stories with traditional, neutral headlines, rather than the click-bait, opinion headlines of today.

But what is the solution, then?  I’ve long been a fan of a pay-per-click model:  load up an account with $10 or $20 and spend it down in dime and quarter increments.  But no one’s been able to make this work.  You’d think that a site like Flipboard and other news aggregators would be especially positioned to be able to make this work.  Has no one thought of it?  Have dozens of people put it in the Flipboard suggestion box and they ran the numbers and said, “it’ll never work”?  Are the folks at the major subscription-only sites fearful that rather than gaining additional revenue, they’ll lose subscribers who will prefer a-la-carte to the “bundled” nature of a newspaper subscription?

What about bundling?  In the same manner as one doesn’t need to purchase streaming-subscriptions from each major record label individually, but instead purchases a “bundled” streaming service such as Spotify or Pandora, couldn’t we newspaper subscribers purchase a bundled subscription?  Again, we subscribers would access our news through a portal which would track where we go and allocate revenue accordingly.

And, again, maybe all the smart minds have done the math and concluded that it wouldn’t work as a business model.  Maybe I just have to figure out the best way to accommodate myself to an alternate reality in which I can’t just share something I wrote at Forbes with as easy an urging to everyone read it.  I definitely will need to spend more time trying to get my articles “just right” to boost the degree to which people think it’s worthwhile to click on them, and will have to think about other platforms for writing. But I haven’t figured that out yet, and right now it’s a definite bummer.


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