As we’ve discussed, paywalls are not the best way to pay for journalism.
The good news is there are several alternative revenue options already in use. The bad news is no one can agree on what the best method to use actually is. There’s not even consensus on who should pay for quality journalism.
Some, like Chicago journalists Mari Cohen and Christian Belanger, believe journalism should be free. “If journalists really believe that what they do is a public good, they should make sure that it is accessible to as many people as possible, not just those who can afford subscriptions to a half-dozen newspapers.”
Others, like developer and designer Leo Ji, believe it might be a good thing if consumers continue to pay the majority of the bill. This could keep publications truly independent.
Some even suggest it’s big tech that should foot the bill for quality online content. After all, it’s companies like Facebook and Google getting rich off of it. Greater regulation could create the funding mechanism, write Akshat Rathi & Douglas McCabe in Quartz.
This kind of debate is all well and good. But as you’ll see, only one group seems likely to pick up the check.
1. A Single Interface for Bundled Subscriptions (Readers Pay)
Most of the problems with paywalls aren’t about the subscription fee, per se, but the way that fee is levied. That’s why several apps are aiming to improve news subscriptions.
Dutch-language app Blendle is helping lead the charge, Mike Murphy at Quartz writes. Rather than paying for one or several subscriptions to publications, users of Blendle can pay very small amounts to read specific articles.
In 2018, Google took its own steps to improve news subscriptions, reports TNW’s Matthew Hughes. Now, readers can subscribe to paywalled sites through the Google News app. “This addresses two of the biggest pain points within paywalls, which is the fact that you’ve got to create and manage a subscription for each site, and if you use multiple devices, you’ve got to log in on each one.”
Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, thinks that these kinds of apps could be the key to finally giving users what they want. People don’t want to pay for a dozen different descriptions. They’d rather have one subscription that gives them access to all the content they want. Newman believes publications will eventually come to the same conclusion.
“Currently, the publishers are afraid that a kind of Netflix for news (that Apple is currently trying to create) could cannibalize their business,” he says. “But I think once they reach the ceiling of every potential subscriber, they will start looking at bundling.”
2. Crowdfunding and Donations (Readers Pay)
One approach that is proving popular with freelance journalists and niche publications is reader donations. Crowdfunding websites have facilitated and normalized the idea that reporters can generate revenue from readers who genuinely want to support them without having to hide their content from the wider public.
Widely read publications like the UK’s Guardian already use this method, as do thousands of smaller bloggers and freelance journalists who are supported through Patreon and other donations platforms.
Two journalists who found success from this method are Jeff Gluck and Derek Bodner, as CJR’s Tony Biasotti reports. Gluck, a NASCAR journalist who now writes for The Athletic, had 800 subscribers who generated $6,500 a month at the time of Biasotti’s reporting. Bodner, an NBA journalist who covers the 76ers, had 1,600 subscribers whose donations accounted for about $4,500 a month.
The model seems to be working for The Guardian, too. In the first three years since the publication switched to a user-supported model, more than 1 million readers in 180 countries have donated, says editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. In April, 2019, the publication was able to make an operating profit as a result of donations while remaining completely free to everyone, everywhere.
3. A Better Paywall (Readers and Advertisers Pay)
Just because paywalls don’t work now doesn’t mean they won’t ever work. That’s the belief of Cxense’s Christian Printzell Halvorsen. One of the big problems with paywalls is their inflexibility, he writes. Everyone pays the same amount for the same access, which means occasional readers rarely convert, and hardcore fans only pay a small amount.
“Enter dynamic paywalls,” Halvorsen says. “Last year, the New York Times, New York Media, and the Wall Street Journal launched new, data-driven paywalls that court subscribers in a more personalized way. Where static paywalls are essentially one-size fits all, the machine learning behind dynamic paywalls crunches user data before determining how to meter site content and offer discounts in return for memberships.”
Hundreds or even thousands of data points could be used to personalize paywalls in a way that makes them appealing for the reader and profitable for the publisher.
Alternatively, existing paywalls could be turned into FreeWalls, writes FIPP’s Piet van Niekerk. FreeWalls, a technology created by Rezonence, offer a middle ground between paywalls and ad-supported free content.
“FreeWall technology loads an advertising option partway into an article,” van Niekerk writes. “To unlock the rest of the article, readers need to answer a question about the advert to prove that they have interacted with it. Once answered, the rest of the content is revealed. The amount of times a reader is confronted with the ad option is capped to ensure the engagement adds value to the reader experience.”
4. BAT and the Blockchain (Readers Pay)
Blockchains are often tipped to transform every industry under the sun, but the technology could actually have a real impact on journalism sooner rather than later. “This decentralized ledger system can track, tag and reward actions using a verifiable, inexpensive process that provides trusted checks-and-balances,” writer and editor Lynne D. Johnson says. “The same platform structure can potentially help distribute content, pay journalists and do other things.”
Several blockchain-based tokens have already been created with this in mind. Perhaps the one with the most potential is the Basic Attention Token, created by the team behind the web browser Brave, which allows users to give cryptocurrency to publishers of their choice.
“If someone likes the content they’re reading/watching on Brave, that person can tip the publication or content creator with Basic Attention Tokens (BAT) on the Ethereum blockchain,” explains BreakerMag’s Jessica Klein. Several major publications, such as The Guardian, The Washington Post and VICE, have signed up already.
Civil is another blockchain-based solution that helps quality journalism get paid. The project centers on the CVL token, which developers think will create incentives to uphold standards, improve trust in journalism and help journalists get paid sufficiently. Owners of the token essentially get to vote on which pieces are published on the platform.
“Buying Civil tokens signals that you wish to participate in and contribute to Civil’s community,” the company explains. “Civil tokens unlock specific activities on the Civil platform, including sponsoring or launching a newsroom, challenging and voting for/against Newsrooms for ethics violations or appealing the outcome of a community vote to the Civil Council.”
Journalists get paid (at least in part) with tokens. The more demand for CVL tokens there is, the more journalists stand to make.
The initial sale was a flop, reports Quartz’s Matthew De Silva. Civil Media only managed to generate $1.4 million of its $8 million target. The project has since been saved by venture studio ConsenSys, and the token was launched again on March 6, 2019. But there’s still a long way to go. At the time of writing, the CVL token is currently trading at a shade above $0.01.
The truth is there is no single solution to the problem of paying for quality journalism. If there was, it would have been implemented already. In reality, publishers probably face years of trial and error to find a solution that effectively supports their journalism. The chances are, however, it will be us readers footing the bill.
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