With a few days left in the month, March has seen three high-profile news publications launch or announce new digital paywalls, while the New York Times continues to plug its paywall loopholes. On Tuesday, the Telegraph introduced a paywall for U.K.-based readers, and, shortly after, News International's Chief Executive Mark Darcey announced at a press event that the Sun was expected to put up a paywall in the second half of 2013. Earlier this month, the Washington Post announced it would launch a metered paywall this coming summer.
It has been been said before, but it's worth repeating: The paywall is here to stay, and we'd better get used to it. What hasn't been said often enough is that we are ultimately doing ourselves a favor by accepting that online content should not always be free.
As news consumers, it's easy to feel resentment and fear at the notion of a stanched information free-flow, after having so long enjoyed unlimited access to more content at our fingertips than we'll ever have time to read. But it's useful to look back at the ancestral fear of the information superhighway, triggered by a simple, and valid, concern: There's too much content to sift through and not enough ways to qualify it.
Google and competing search engines have worked to distil the information dump with algorithms that calculate a given publication or article's value and yield search results that favor the better-ranked websites and the worthiest stories. This filtering process has helped weed out some of the bad and/or unnecessary eggs and ensure that prestige publications come out on top. But it has also enabled -- even forced -- the culture of search-engine baiting popularly blamed for a perceived decline in journalistic integrity. Though search engines may provide the illusion of agency, Google filters and delivers content on Google's terms. Paywalls enable us to filter on ours -- for a price, of course. And it's a price we should be willing to pay.
The migration from ad-based revenue to subscription-based revenue means a shift from a consumer audience to a customer audience: When we pay for content, the providers of that content are answering more to us and less to advertisers. This is not to say that it is inherently inappropriate to rely on advertising revenue -- network television has been doing it for decades, and we've largely accepted that model while paying for premium cable channels at our discretion.
The news media, too, has long been supported by advertisers. This reliance has only been identified as a critical problem of integrity in recent years, as an increasing number of online news publishers have had to compete for slivers of finite advertising budgets. There are not enough advertising dollars to go around anymore, and advertisers don't have the luxury of investing too many of those dollars in ads on pages they can't guarantee will be seen. Thus, the pay-per-click model was born, one that is ripe for abuse, that readers find annoying and that is widely regarded as unsustainable. To fill in the gaps, news brands have toyed with experimental models, including sponsored content like "native advertising," the euphemism for advertorials that masquerade as editorials -- sometimes all too convincingly, as in the case of the Atlantic's Church of Scientology advertorial that some mistook as the Atlantic's own content.
On Wednesday, as IBT's Christopher Zara reported, Google warned online publishers against the use of native ads, promising to punish websites that traffic in presumably deceptive sponsored content with the “removal of articles, or even the entire publication, from Google News.” Like Zara wrote, Google's crackdown on sponsored content is a reminder of who is in charge, but it's also a reminder that, when it comes to advertising dollars, Google is a competitor. (In the first half of 2012, Google took in nearly $21 billion in advertising revenue, more than the entire print news industry.)
Also on Wednesday, NPR "On The Media" co-host and "Can't Buy Me Like" co-author Bob Garfield published a dismally toned column in the Guardian (a steadfast paywall holdout, it should be noted), in which he characterized the consumers of free Web content as "looters."
"Those consumers cheerfully using the Web to sample content from all over the world via news websites, blogs and aggregators are essentially picking the inventory clean," Garfield wrote. "Oh, and, when they get the stuff home, the goods aren't what they used to be. And some of the stuff has a sour smell to it."
The paywall model doesn't promise us a rose garden; along with the obvious drawback of having to keep your credit card handy to read the news, there are likely further flaws we haven't yet anticipated. But it might take some of the stink off.
Of course, not every website is in a position to charge its readers an entrance fee. At the moment, the news sites that have dared to enforce a paywall are for the most part the same ones that currently enjoy preferential search engine placement and enough "native traffic" (readers who go directly to the site versus landing there by way of search engines and social media links) to safely bet on subscription revenue. The majority of the paywalled national news sites in the U.S. and U.K. have an accompanying print product (Andrew Sullivan's "The Dish" blog is the leading exception), and almost all but the Sun -- a popular U.K. tabloid that has not yet made an official announcement about the terms of its anticipated subscription model -- cater to an educated, and presumably moneyed, readership.
We can't ignore the demographic question. Charging readers for so-called premium content is a thorny endeavor, politically speaking -- one that is rooted in uncomfortable notions about who is entitled to higher quality news. And even if we run with the assumption that the well-read will put a dollar value on “better” journalism, these days, especially in the U.S., the only financial guarantee of formal overeducation is staggering student loan debt. When every dollar counts, $15 per month is a luxury that many will have to forgo.
Many more will have to become more selective in their choice of journalism, assuming the paywall model continues to catch on, and this is where the future looks less bleak. If a news brand expects its readers to pay a premium, it will have to deliver on the implicit promise of uniquely valuable content by relying less on aggregation and more on original reporting. As one commenter to Garfield's Guardian piece said, “If newspapers were regularly getting exclusives and doing good quality investigative journalism, using their reach and expertise to find stories that no single blogger had the network to get to, then we'd all still be buying papers.”
While it's a stretch to compare the news publishing industry to the television industry, one hopeful scenario is that subscription models will do for journalism what premium cable did for television. Few would argue that premium cable channels have raised the bar across the board: Vapid reality TV and mind-numbing sitcoms abound, but they likely would abound whether or not “The Sopranos” had existed; the same probably cannot be said for “Mad Men” or "Sons of Anarchy." As television viewers came to expect a near-cinematic standard of original programming from channels they pay for, basic cable was forced to up its game, and audiences have come to accept -- even embrace -- a rather lower standard from those channels we get for free. “Homeland” with a chaser of “The Bachelor”? Why not? As long as we know what we're getting into.
“As journalism brands grow to look more like one another, we are seeing unmistakable signs of publishers slouching toward an ethical lowest common denominator,” Garfield wrote. Whether or not you agree with Garfield's ethical charge here, it's impossible to argue against his observation that news content on the Web has become increasingly homogenized, as online publishers are chasing the same trends, always with an eye on currying Google's favor.
“Anyone who cares deeply about quality, independent journalism should pray for paywalls and other subscription models to take hold,” Garfield wrote. Indeed we should; if they do, it will mean that, instead of competing for Google's attention, news publishers will compete for ours.