Blog: Walled Up; or Why Paywalls Are A Bad Idea

The publishing industry has been riding a rough wave over the last few years. With sales, subscriptions, and advertising dollars falling, many amazing publications have had to close their doors. Others have turned to online media to stay afloat. The World Wide Web isn’t the hit-it-rich world it once was in its infancy. It takes a massive time investment to build up a following in the digital world — something many publications aren’t willing to put in the effort to do. Many abandoned online video because it didn’t turn a quick profit, while an entire industry has now sprung up around Video Essayists… a medium that many magazines could have cornered years ago if they had put in the effort. These video essays range in topics from entertainment news, socio-political op-eds, and even nature and science. There’s no genre that hasn’t been touched by these new essayists, who have developed massive subscriber bases that many magazines could only dream of touching.

And their content is entirely free.

Granted, many of them have Patreon accounts that people can donate to in order to augment their monthly AdSense revenue (which can be low or high depending upon the size of their audience, demographics, and topics covered), but anyone and everyone can sit down and watch videos from ContraPoints, Movies With Mikey, Kat Blaque, Lindsay Ellis, ColdCrashPictures, Hbomerguy, Jim Sterling, or PhilosophyTube for free. Five, ten, fifteen, even twenty thousand word essays brought to you for the low low price of… zero dollars. Lindsay Ellis’s exposé on the troubled production of “The Hobbit” film franchise even garnered her a Hugo Award nomination. Some ContraPoints videos have been lauded as the reason for de-radicalization amongst people on the far right, and Hbomberguy raised more than $347,000 for Mermaids (a charity that helps gender diverse and transgender youth in the UK)… by playing Donkey Kong 64 online.

Why can these people accomplish such amazing things? Because they have followings. Why do they have followings? Because their content is freely available for anyone to discover, at any time. They’re being given the type of credit and awards that used to go to major newspapers and magazines. So what changed?

Well, the economy tanked in 2008 and still has not recovered for people of a certain generation. Namely, the generation that grew up with YouTube. A place where Op-Eds are freely available in video form; where TYT and Philip DeFranco do daily news shows and don’t rely on “access” to the newsmakers, so you know you’re getting the whole story… not just spin; a place where thoroughly researched essays and exposés are brought to you by any number of creators, on any number of topics. Whether you want to learn more about Disney’s Hercules, The Lord of The Rings, Gone With The Wind, and Independence Day… or the disturbing worlds of red/black pill Incels, rampant murder of transgender women, or a dissection of Nazi propaganda… it’s all there. And it’s all free. These creators had degrees that employers said were useless and used them to create content that is changing the way we take in information.

That’s why I can’t fathom to understand why many publishers are putting up paywalls to their content, and then wondering why people aren’t subscribing.

“When I’m browsing online, and I see an interesting article, I will click on it,” says Monica R., a Junior Communications Specialist at a publishing firm in Toronto. “And then it basically asks for my credit card number. Sorry, I’m not paying to read your article when I can find something else, that likely wasn’t written with a baby-boomer bias, for free elsewhere. It’s a completely broken business model that I see a lot of magazines and newspapers doubling down on.”

And Monica isn’t the only one who thinks so. Industry insiders have been worried about the rash of pay-walls for years now. Om Malik of GigaOm said:

“I think the paywall craze which is sweeping the media herd will be a big reality check for the news and magazine publishers. So many of them are drinking their own spiked kool-aid. They will soon realize the size of their ‘real audience’ and will soon realize that they don’t pass the ‘value for money’ threshold. There are very few publications that have a feeling of must-reads and must-haves.”

Paywalls sound like a good idea to people in the accounting department. Make people pay for content, and pretend they can’t get similar (or even better) content elsewhere for free. Newsday, for instance, was convinced that a paywall was the perfect way to make extra revenue so they instituted one, to much fanfare in the publishing industry. Three months later they had 35 subscribers. Those subscription fees probably didn’t even cover the cost of implementing the paywall in the first place. Many will argue that paywalls enable a more robust free press. But many economists argue the contrary; pointing out that paywalls exclude most people from taking in the content, and make “real journalism” a classist institution only meant for people who can afford it.

So what’s to be done? Well, it’s something I’ve been arguing in favour of for a while now:

Publishers. Need to. Diversify.

Publishers need to stop relying on subscribers and advertisers to keep the lights on. This is 2019. E-Commerce is a tool in your belt — why not use it? Offer news and articles for free, and then make special goodies and content available for paying customers. TYT uses this model, and they’ve been steadily growing for years. Their daily news show is 100% free, but if you sign up as a member you get a wealth of content ranging from shows, podcasts, blogs, and live specials. On top of that, they sell merchandise, and each of their writers and anchors have a strong social media presence.

Some of the essayists mentioned earlier have such dedicated patrons via Patreon that they’re able to employ teams of people. Lindsay Ellis employs more people than a lot of small magazines, and that’s because people watch her content, read her articles, and enjoy it so much that they’re willing to support her financially.

Having an audience is no longer a given. Especially an audience that’s willing to pay. You have to cultivate that audience, create a relationship with that audience, and earn their trust by producing quality content for them. It’s not fast, and it takes time and dedication and patience. The audience that subscribed to newspapers and magazines is, quite literally, dying. The generation coming up after them has grown up in a world where top content creators are on the internet, where you can watch and read their content for free. So throwing a paywall up in their face before they even get to know your brand… before they trust you… it’s only going to result in a lot of exe’d out windows. A new strategy is needed, and the sooner the industry gets to work on that, the better.


-James Somerton

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