One-size-fits all paywalls for publishers create societal problems. Time for new models to make sure our news needs are being met.
Tax season always gives me a shock about where I spend my money. Egads! This year I spent an unholy amount on subscriptions– magazines, newspapers, newsletters, streaming media, music. Sadly, we’re talking thousands of dollars. But the problem is, in almost every case if I didn’t buy the full subscription, I couldn’t read that one crucial article I needed. Last night I met an editor from The Financial Times. I complimented him on his reporting but said I often couldn’t read it because the $40 a month subscription fee is a big hit for something I might read once a month.
On a larger level, It’s not just my pocketbook that hurts. It’s my knowledge of the world. As I winnow my subscriptions down to the affordable, the world becomes increasingly narrow, because publishers have put so much content behind paywalls.
Most of the news sites have a great introductory offer for a few months, hoping you’ll forget the expiration and just keep footing the bill. But after the low-cost trial period is over, it can really add up. Here’s what I have to pay for digital versions: New York Times ($5 weekly), New York Magazine ($24 a year), Washington Post ($40 a year), Wall Street Journal ($40 a month), Wired ($10 a month), The Atlantic ($60 a year), The New Yorker ($100 a year) VentureBeat ($9 monthly), and Bloomberg ($290 a year). Just those add up to over $1,000 a year.
Now, let’s say there’s suddenly an article I really need to read that’s not covered by any of my subscriptions — say, USA Today, Forbes or Forture, Business of Fashion, Vogue, Variety, or Hollywood Reporter. All of them publish great stuff that I enjoy on a more ad hoc basis. While I’d be happy to pay something to read them, I’m faced with the binary decision of subscribing or not. And then there are new media products like Substack – many journalists that I love write there, but they require a digital subscription as well. I’m not against paying for content I like, or for supporting good journalism, but I am against paying in an all-or-nothing fashion.
Gaming the System
I have numerous workarounds and I’m sure you do, too. The easiest is to subscribe to a free trial (anywhere from 7 to 30 days) and put a “note to self” into my calendar to remind me to unsubscribe once the trial period is over. The second easiest is to simply use another email address to start another trial, once I’ve used my allotted free articles. Visiting a site from another browser often works, too, since the cookies there are fresh. Many, like Forbes and The Atlantic, will let you read 3 or so articles free each week or month. All of this requires a lot of planning and record keeping.
To evaluate your own subscription addictions, and find out how much you are actually already paying, you can use one of a number of apps that identify all your recurring subscriptions and make it easy to unsubscribe if you want.
Besides the costs, news subscriptions create a schism between those who can pay for online news and those cannot. Will we start to see growing differences between the information-rich and the information-poor? We already have. That’s partly why we have entered what some call a “post-truth” society. The information poor often get their news from less reliable sources like Twitter, Facebook, or worse.
When we won’t or can’t read past a paywall, we risk turning into a society of uninformed people and unequally informed people. For $39 a year you can read clever articles like this at Current Affairs: The Truth is Paywalled, But Lies Are Free.
Doesn’t it seem like there ought to be a way to pay per view for news sites? Outlook, an Indian magazine launched an article-based micro-payment option in February. They claim to have witnessed 35 conversions through micropayments — which means out of 100 people who opened the story page and saw the paywall, 35 paid the small amount to read the story. Axate lets customers bypass the paywall and try an article for a small micropayment (set by the publisher). Dropp, is another company devoted to making small micropayments available – everything from your morning newspaper to your latte.
“Local news”, reports What’s in Media, “is another area where micropayments are sorely needed. “You’re not going to pay $1 to read the local sports team’s outcome, “it says. “Articles should be priced in dimes and quarters, not dollars. Ten or fifteen cents is almost free and is more likely to attract an impulse click than one dollar.” And some portion of those micropayment readers may convert to subscribers if they’re satisfied.
Google News does a nice job of aggregating a list of stories you’d be interested in, based on your personal interests, but the article’s text is unavailable if you aren’t a subscriber. What’s New in Publishing posits the idea of a personalized, dynamic paywall to connect the right subscriber with the right content at the right time. One analyst quoted in the story says, “It’s amazing, (mind-boggling, actually) to think that in an era of increasing personalization we ever thought a one-size-fits-all paywall would work.”