May 6, 2022

Journalism is often filled with competing interests. The “business side” versus the “editorial side” is a classic example. Another is the chase for eyeballs via clickbait or the quality pursuit of awards. There are many forces in our industry that have an equal and opposing force and shades of gray in between.

A pivotal dichotomy in the years to come is the tension between charging an audience for access to content and journalism in service of a community. After the great “pivot to video” debacle of the mid-2010s, monetizing readers directly through subscriptions, events, and merchandise has been a growing trend.

We see this trend in organizations like The New York Times, which now boasts over 8 million subscribers, and individuals who are monetizing their audiences with paywalled newsletters, text channels, or membership communities. This trend has even hit the major platforms, with Twitter and Instagram slowly releasing tools that would allow content creators to monetize their audience directly and offer members-only perks.

On the other side of this equation, however, is the threat that the greater public is being left behind. In fact, some predict we will see an outright questioning of paywalls. Playing “hide-the-ball” with information can leave a bad taste in the mouth of journalists who still see their job as more than just a paycheck, but in service of a higher mission.

The case for service

Without getting sidetracked, let’s just say we live in “extraordinary times.” There’s a pandemic, a war in Ukraine and many argue that our very democracy is under attack. News organizations, especially local, have provided an invaluable service to the public throughout the pandemic and in recent elections. Even with this support, we’re hanging by a thread. Imagine the impact on our information ecosystem if there was even less access to professional news content.

There has been much hemming and hawing about whether or not the American public shares the values of journalism, but this is just as much an opportunity as a “crisis.” As the American Press Institute notes, “there are ways journalists can broaden story choices and framing to reach and be relevant to more of the public, skeptical and trusting alike.”

Pivoting to service will be a key area of innovation. This can take the form of tech products, like text alerts, simplified information, in-person events and more. It can also take the form of explanatory journalism like The Atlantic’s COVID Data Tracker or narratives that are in service of a community like The City’s “Missing Them.” Service to the community is a viable avenue to build out the traditional revenue channels of sponsors, and advertisers, along with newer avenues like e-commerce.

It’s fair to admit we don’t know the right mix of products/services that make this an easy path to take. But that’s part of the tradeoff. Content has a better chance of making a splash, but you have to prove regular audience/community engagement to monetize and we live in a fickle world.

The case for paywalls

It comes down to this: Eyeballs aren’t worth nearly as much as brains.

Without paywalls, the best monetization strategy is to accumulate large audiences. Write a catchy headline, ride the wave of 10,000 eyeballs rushing to your piece and monetize the eyeballs. But imagine slowing down and thinking about the brains behind each eyeball. If you can stimulate them, people are willing to pay much more.

Let’s take two examples at opposite ends to drive this point home. BuzzFeed has a business model based on mass audience and leveraging social platforms (with even larger audiences) to build a steady stream of eyeballs. At the other end of the spectrum is The Information, which charges upwards of $399 a year to subscribe. The Information doesn’t put too much stock on if their content goes viral and lands 12 million eyeballs. They’re more concerned about 20,000+ paying subscribers netting them direct revenue.

To our point earlier, a valid question is, “Who are these paying subscribers?” Most likely they’re wealthy individuals, insiders within the tech industry, or employees of the tech giants who pay for it via company cards. This is not to say The Information doesn’t do great journalism. But I and 99% of the U.S. population have never benefited from it directly and maybe never will. Perhaps that’s a tradeoff The Information is happy to make to know it can sustain itself without question for the right audience and eventually grow to offer more niche news for more folks.

Squaring the circle

In the end, this square can’t be circled. But it’s also important to note that it’s not an either/or situation. There are shades of gray in between our example of BuzzFeed and The Information. Most organizations rest somewhere along that spectrum.

Even our general industry outlook shifts. From 2010 to 2015, audience growth was all the rage, and for the last five years the pendulum has swung to owning and monetizing your audience directly. Perhaps the true north star can be found when we look down the center of these wild corrections.

Only a few need to play at the extremes. Your paywall can be porous, your service journalism can establish an elite community.

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Over the last fifteen years David Cohn has been at the forefront of innovation in journalism, working on some of the first experiments in buzzwordy…
David Cohn

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