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Paywalls: The Death Rattle Of Mass Media, Or Who Wants To Read The Boring Ass New York Times Anyway?

Are paywalls to keep non-paying readers from coming in or established readers from going out?

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There was once a day when a person had to pay for news. If you wanted a newspaper, you dropped 35 cents into the can. It was normal.

In these days you had a limited selection of choices at the newsstand — unless you mail ordered more speciality titles — which were easy to navigate and seemed like all you needed in the realm of news.

Then came the internet, and, while it took a while, eventually there was a seemingly infinite array of options. You were no longer tied into whatever periodicals your local newsstand sold and an entire world of new publications and new forms of journalism sprouted up.

In the beginning of the internet’s ubiquitous era there was an advertising model that somewhat worked. The big news sites filled coffers that were stuffed by how many page views and clicks they could generate, not by how many paying subscribers they had. In this model, paywalls were counterproductive — you wanted as many readers as possible, as that’s how money was made.

Very roughly speaking, during this era online news became a win-win-win for publishers, advertisers, and readers. Publishers generated revenue through getting as many readers as possible, advertisers banked off of a seemingly limitless amount of new inventory and new ways to reach new audiences, and readers benefited from not having to pay for the news they consumed. It was the information free for all that the World Wide Web was designed to be.

The web was a free and open place then, as you could easily go from site to site to site without being blocked by paywalls or subscriber-only content, and this free and open interlinking was what made the World Wide Web a web.

During this era, most of us really didn’t read publications, we read stories. We would search for a news topic on a search engine like Google, open a few stories from various publications, and read them with little regard for what brand name was printed on the masthead. In this way, rival publications were brought together, and there was an odd form of unity and democracy in media. In these days I couldn’t care less if I was reading a story on the NYT or WSJ or WP. It was the content that mattered, not the publication, and search engines were like the magazine rack in cafes — you could stumble on a publication and freely browse through it, commitment free.

But these days were too good to last.

As the amount of potential ad inventory soared to the point of over-saturation and its true value to companies became more understood — an ad online is apparently not worth the same as one in print — online advertising became a rush to the bottom.

Btu it had by then become convention for readers to expect what they consumed online to be free, but the ad revenue was no longer covering the necessary margins for the publications that produced it, as a fundamental problem emerged:

The quagmire of a product that people wanted but didn’t want to pay for that was available everywhere for free but delivered by entities that could no longer make enough money producing it. Margins dwindled for publishers, and most drastically downsized and cheapened their operations — with more than a few going out of business.

It was clear that the mainstream news industry would need another paradigm shift to regain its solvency, that they would have to start charging for news again.

It all started with optional premium subscriber package, then X amount of free articles per month, and now we’re seeing paywalls popping up everywhere.

We again have to pay for news — just like in the old days.

These paywalls are middle fingers sticking up at the very premise of the World Wide Web, dividing it up into millions of disconnected parts. No longer is the web a web: when you click on a link in a search engine and get a paywall, the information flow is severed, stopped dead in its tracks.

As sites transition to apps — which are basically the same thing that print newspaper and magazines once were — the World Wide Web is going through a major transition. Publications are again separating from each other. We can no longer easily jump from an article on the New York Times to one on the Wall Street Journal to one on the Washington Post to get the full take on a story.

News is no longer interconnected; it is no longer one big conversation, one colossal packet of knowledge that can be accessed without much regard for what particular publication it’s coming from. Google will soon relinquish its position as the nervous system of the web and (hopefully) will stop linking the internal pages of paywalled sites, as big boys like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal will go back to ruling within the confines of their own subdivided playgrounds. We are going back to reading publications rather than stories, walling ourselves up inside of brands rather than freely crossing the boundaries between them. There will be no “citizens of the world” in the next phase of the internet.

The free flowing information super highway that the internet’s early architects envisioned is rapidly dissolving, and what we are getting in its place is the same print media show in digital dress.

For the reader, we now need to chose what playgrounds we go to, what side of the tracks we stand on, what brands and apps we will pay for and what brands and apps we won’t. There is too much media available online; we can’t possibly pay for it all. We have to make choices.

We’re looking at a news reading experience that’s as clunky as it was in the days of print. How many news apps do you really want? How often are you really going to switch between them? How many paid news apps can you really afford?

How many people are going to be alienated to the world of hype news, opinion news, and fake news simply because they don’t want to pay for premium news? An app is not like a newspaper — you’re not just going to find one laying around that you can pick up and read.

And paying out dozens or hundreds of dollars in one go for access to a premium news site is a lot different than laying down a buck or two at the newsstand every once in a while.

We are entering into an age of a massive dichotomy in media. There is going to be the paid internet on one side and the free internet on the other. The paid internet will be for the social elite, the “intelligentsia,” and a margin of the middle class, while the free internet will return to being the Wild West — the “cesspool of misinformation” — it was before big media really jumped into the fray, and it will be for the working class and poor — the people who actually select our presidents.

I have to admit that this essay until now  works on the premise that people even want to read publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and would access them even if they were freely available. Are there really people lined up at the gates dying to read the dying publications of a dying age?

I, myself, someone who is willing to pay for news, doesn’t read these mass-audience types of publications. They tend to be too bland, over-edited, emotionless, dictated by the established perspectives of mass society, and overtly general. They are full of words that essentially say nothing.

Yes, this tells me something.

The established guard of publications have lost their monopoly on mass media, and not just some of their biggest revenue streams. Suddenly, entire seas of sites arose that were able to tell the story of the news in a more engaging, conversational, and emotionally inciting way. The Wall Street Journal cannot tell stories in the same way as D’Vorkin-era Forbes. The Financial Times is a dirge to read when compared to Business Insider. The New York Times cannot by as dynamic as VICE. TIME cannot be as insightful and informative as The Diplomat or Foreign Policy. While the dropping ad revenue of big publications is a very real phenomenon, it’s only one part of the story as to why they’re struggling to make ends meet. The real story here is that the current news reader doesn’t want the same old, general dribble. We don’t want the Washington Post, we want Breitbart.

We want media that is specially created just for us.

Mass media publications are being abandoned on all fronts. The serious news reader is going for more specific types of premium publications and the other end of the market is gravitating towards more hyped up, Facebook oriented types of news.

The mass audience that the mass media produces content for is shrinking fast. When I was a kid a huge portion of the population of the USA watched either one of three news programs, read one of three or four national newspapers, and listened to one of a few local radio stations. And, basically, all of the above provided us with the same product. In those days you could walk up to someone at random and talk about what news you consumed that day and there would be a reasonable chance that they consumed it as well. You could have a conversation about it, and your takes probably wouldn’t have been that far off. This was the mass society that no longer exists.

Paywalls are perhaps not to prevent non-paying readers from coming in but to keep established readers from going out.

Filed under: Journalism, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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