In recent times, much has said about the issues the media has when it comes to monetising their work. Put simply, ads aren’t working well, and media outlets are struggling to convert their audiences into actual profit.
And for the most part, people seem to be assuming this is down to some barrier to entry. That the media is struggling because people don’t want to pay for a subscription and would instead prefer to buy single articles or support the outlets in some other way.
It’s an interesting idea, and one with a lot of potential solutions in the pipeline. Some include providing a Netflix esque service for news, where articles from multiple publications can be bought in one place (like Blendle).
Some have suggested the browser should take over, with Brave’s big selling point being that authors and creators can make money from their users by divvying up monthly payments to people the latter have visited.
And as per usual, some have suggested cryptocurrencies and blockchains are the solution, with the usual snake oil merchants talking about how Bitcoin can save the industry.
But here’s the thing: None of these solutions will work.
Why? Because they miss the issue entirely. The reason the media is struggling to make money isn’t just because it’s difficult to buy single articles online. It’s because the internet has utterly removed the need to spend money on news.
And there are two main ways it’s done that. For starters, it’s enabled many more people to setup their own media outlets, whether in the form of news sites, YouTube channels, blogs or social media accounts. This in turn means that there’s now a glut of news available online, and that the media supply significantly outweighs the demand.
So now there’s no incentive to pay for anything, and any media outlet who tries to charge anything will get defeated by the free market. Think about it for a minute. What do you think would happen if every mainstream media outlet put up a paywall or required people to purchase articles?
Simple, someone else would come along and eat their lunch. After all, it’s not expensive to buy web hosting, and it’s free to set up a WordPress site with some news stories on it. So the existing New York Times would simply give way to a new ‘Free New York Times replacement’ and the cycle would just start anew. There’s no incentive to pay for anything on the user’s side, and there’s no incentive to charge anything on the publication’s side, since it just means finding a new media outlet/giving up audience share to your competition.
And it’s not a problem that brand recognition or quality content can really fix either. Oh sure, it may work for some people. There are definitely a few people out there who value the quality of the content they read enough to pay for it, and a fair few of them can be found on Hacker News and journalism forums across the internet.
But they’re a minority. For most people, news isn’t a product judged by quality, it’s one that’s judged by convenience. They don’t care if the New York Times or Washington Post has ‘amazing’ journalist, they just care what Trump said on Twitter this morning or whether X celebrity got married a few days ago.
Hence there’s now no incentive for them to pay anyone. After all, why bother when everything you care about can found elsewhere for free? For average Joe, there’s literally zero reason to ever pay for news.
Even if it was, the same setups wouldn’t work for most publications anyway. Only the elite few have a good enough reputation and a loyal enough fanbase to stick it out with a paid subscription setup, and the rest are basically only popular because they exist.
Like say, 99.999% of sites offering gaming news. No one cares about IGN or Gamespot or Kotaku as a brand, they just care about the news story they post every few hours or so. What Nintendo announced in that last Nintendo Direct. Whether lootboxes are present in that EA multiplayer game everyone’s ranting about. Or perhaps what Pokemon generation 8 looks like.
Hence if those sites charged money, they’d basically just sink without a trace. The gaming market has so many news sites and services in it that people would just go to one of those replacements and get their news from there for free.
Then again, gaming is a funny old business really, since the developers and publishers are themselves cutting out the media middleman. Do you really need to read a news article about Super Mario Maker 2 when Nintendo’s stuck a nice presentation for you to watch on YouTube for free?
So entertainment journalism is doubly doomed. It doesn’t just have to fight against every blog and YouTube channel in existence, but also against the very people making the material running their own news outlets and competing against them.
But hey, let’s just assume (in some magical hypothetical world) that somehow most news outlets did start charging money for their work and a certain percentage were interested in paying. Would that necessarily be a good thing?
I’m not sure it would.
Because at the end of the day, having all this free content online is probably the one thing keep media literacy afloat at all. Fact is, by giving people free content, you’ve given people who’d otherwise not be buying newspapers access to high quality sources of information.
But if you take that away… well, what’s left?
Passion projects, social media sites and all the outlets that can’t in a million years to get people to pay for them.
Of which pretty much all ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theory sites are contained. So the articles debunking stupid ideas get less traction than before, poorer individuals get locked out of credible news sources, and the likes of Breitbart and InfoWars see a surge in popularity. Not exactly some kind of utopia, is it?
Back to the real world on the other hand, and a few more obstacles stand in the way of monetising the media.
Like say, the fact the media market is caught in a deadly prisoner’s dilemma where any attempt to charge more money means losing popularity, and people’s expectations have been set to zero.
People expect free news, and if you don’t give it to them, someone else will. So the market price for news is basically zero.
Just like the app store really. Over there competition and over supply has pushed prices so low than even charging money gets you hordes of angry reviews and pissed off users mad they can’t get the game for free. Just ask Nintendo, whose Super Mario Run app got crucified by a decent chunk of the mobile market for having a price tag at all.
And it’s a situation that makes co-operation nigh on impossible. If every media outlet except yours charges money, you’ll get the lion’s share of the market. Hence your incentive isn’t to charge money, and neither is that of any of your competitors, however big or small.
Still, even if you did manage to succeed there, then what? You’d basically be breaking the free market for news and journalism. Not like some people haven’t advocated for that:
But they’d soon regret it if their wishes came true. Because at that point, well out come the anti trust lawsuits, fines for price fixing, etc. Hence even if by some ‘miracle’ everyone did decide to charge money, well that’d just bring the wrath of the media regulators and government.
So now even in the ‘best’ case scenario, you’re still screwed. You just see a bunch of popular outlets get slammed with hefty fines and everyone else quickly scramble to go back as congressional/parliamentary hearings for media collusion take off.
And it gets worse still. That’s because for a site to become popular online, it needs the support of at least two more major groups:
- Search engines (mainly Google)
- Plus social media sites (like Facebook, Twitter, etc)
Both of these groups have clear incentives not to encourage authors and publishers to charge for the work.
In Google’s case, that’s because rule 1 of their search engine is that users and bots must see the same content. No ifs, no buts; a user searching Google must be able to click a link and see the exact same thing as Googlebot did when it indexed the site.
So any news sites wanting to have their content listed in Google (which is basically mandatory at this point) are left in a quandary.
Do they put up a solid paywall and get banned/delisted from Google search?
Or do they put up a permeable one and find users reading their articles for free via archive.is/outline websites and Google search links? Either solution means problems for the site and discourages them from charging for their work.
Regardless, tricking Google is out of the question here too. Do that, and that’s black hat SEO and cause to ban the site altogether.
It’s a no win situation.
Same goes with social media sites. You need people to be able to share your work, and that only works well if others can actually read it. So again, there’s a major incentive to make things free, since that’s how you get readers from Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.
So the problem with media monetisation doesn’t come from some difficulty selling individual articles, and it’s not something cryptocurrencies, the blockchain or a special browser can solve. It’s that the internet has removed the need to pay for anything, its new gatekeepers have made it impossible to make people pay for anything and the number of competitors in the news market has turned any attempt at making money into a fool’s errand.
And all of those are problems we have no solution to.