This piece was originally published on Counter-Markets.
As more mainstream media publications are moving their reporting behind a subscriber paywall, independent media outlets are seeking decentralized solutions.
Over the last several years, a number of large media corporations have opted to install some form of a paywall – that is, they have decided to make readers pay for all or some of the articles they read online. This change has been steadily taking place since the dawn of Internet journalism. Every year it seems like there are new reports of less and less people reading print newspapers as more readers flock to digital journalism.
In 2016, a Pew Research poll showed that only 20 percent of adults in the U.S. received their news from print newspapers. The number had fallen from 27 percent in 2013. The poll reveals that the difference in readership is truly generational with only 5 percent of 18 to 29 year olds reading print, and 48 percent of those 65 and older still reading physical newspapers. As legacy media outlets attempt to keep up with reader demands, more and more have opted to implement paywalls as a way to recover profits lost due to shrinking print sales.
Most recently, Bloomberg has announced they will be moving their content behind a paywall. Back in April, Vanity Fair announced that after readers read their fourth article in a month they need to sign up for a $19.99 per year subscription to continue reading.
In a recent piece titled “A Farewell to Free Journalism,” The Washington Post took note of this trend:
Sooner or later, virtually everyone in the industry is going to put his or her content behind a subscription wall. And in general, you should bet on “sooner” rather than “later.”
Paywalls may seem like an inevitability for Internet journalism, but why are they necessary? Will people pay for what they have become accustomed to getting for free? Are readers simply unwilling to finance the journalism they obviously enjoy reading? What is the solution to keeping journalism funded at a time when speaking truth is more important than ever?
The Post goes on to note that journalism outlets and independent journalists have always struggled to maintain financial stability. This instability has meant a dependency on advertising dollars.
So how did my industry make it work for so long? The answer is that we never did, really, which is why so many newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay afloat, and so many Web publications are burning through piles of investor money as they hunt for a viable business model. The more interesting question is why we couldn’t make it work. And the answer to that lies in the structure of the traditional media business.
The article goes on to explain that for more than a century magazines and newspapers have been dependent on subscriptions from readers to pay the bills. However, the cost of subscribing does not cover the actual costs of printing and delivering a paper. Instead, media outlets have made deals with advertisers who are desperate to get their products in front of readers of magazines and newspapers.
The Post essentially puts most of the blame on the Internet for disrupting the old legacy model of selling ad space to finance journalism. With the digital space completely open to anyone wanting to create a website there is now an increase in supply of websites available to advertisers. More specifically, The Post lays the ultimate blame at the feet of Internet companies like Google and Facebook who “get content for free from their users, or other people on the Internet.”
This shift towards advertising via social media and Internet-related services has allowed many advertisers to move away from focusing on advertising via magazines and newspapers. In turn, these changes are leading to the increase in paywalls across many media outlets. However, it is not only the legacy corporate media outlets who are coping with the changing landscape. Independent and alternative media outlets are also struggling to keep up with the changes and find ways to pay writers and editors.
In the last decade, the Internet and social media have contributed to the creation of a whole new industry of independent media based on social media virality. In the mid 2000s and early 2010s, a number of activists and soon-to-be digital journalists launched Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and YouTube channels aimed at spreading information and ideas via memes and aggregated articles. Over time many of these accounts grew to reach millions and tens of millions of people.
The most savvy of these individuals recognized the opportunity and turned their pages and channels into websites where they, too, could benefit from advertising dollars. The more viral the social media post, the more likely it was to take the readers away from social media towards newly created websites based on the social media accounts. This in turn led to revenue from advertising and, in many cases, these funds were used to create legitimate media outlets with teams of writers, editors, and social media gurus.
However, in the last two years independent media outlets – specifically those dependent on social media for reach – have been struggling to stay afloat. The same issues that plague the corporate media also affect the independent media, but there is also the added burden of combating the establishment.
Alternative and independent media often report stories and dissect narratives which directly counter the political establishment and mainstream media. This makes us an even greater target for censorship. In addition, the response to the propaganda around Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election has resulted in a number of indy outlets having been falsely labeled “Fake News” – a potential kiss of death when seeking advertisers. Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube have taken the cue by altering their algorithms to suppress the reach of independent media or, in some cases, outright shutting down pages and channels. At the same time, Google and other advertisers are increasingly unwilling to work with those of us who sit firmly outside of the mainstream conversation as these arbitrary labels prevail.
To be frank – this social media suppression and censorship is killing the independent media. Since the beginning of 2018, my colleagues in several of the largest media outlets have told me that they are no longer able to pay their writers or editors. Several talented writers and reporters are now being forced to find day jobs to keep paying their bills because writing articles alone is not putting food on the table.
In early June, The Anti Media announced they would halt original reporting for the time being. Ben Swann’s Truth in Media also announced an end to written reporting. Facebook pages like The Mind Unleashed (with more than 8 million followers on Facebook) are now struggling to reach a quarter of their former audience.
It seems obvious that if this trend continues we will see the end of free content by independent and alternative media outlets.
How can the independent media stay relevant (and profitable) when the corporate media is struggling to pay their bills? Paywalls do not work for independent media. Every single outlet I spoke with said that at some point they attempted to offer a subscription service for access to their reporting but were met with criticism and disbelief from their audiences. Even with voluntary subscription services like Patreon, indy media outlets struggle to get enough funds to pay their team and maintain a sustainable operation.
Some outlets unfortunately have abandoned truth in favor of catering to what they think the audience wants to hear. Other outlets have tried to use crowdfunding campaigns to encourage readers to support operations. These efforts are also met with criticism as many readers tire of being asked for donations. Websites like Beacon offered a platform where news consumers could voluntarily choose to fund the journalist and stories they want to see covered. For two years Beacon was able to keep this formula going, but they eventually succumbed to the same issues we have discussed here.
If readers won’t pay for journalism and advertisers are wary of independent views and news, who will fund these projects? As The Washington Post noted,
Either we will find someone else to pay for the news and opinion and cartoons you consume, or we will go out of business. That someone doesn’t have to be the reader.
One recently emerging trend for funding journalism has seen independent media outlets partnering with cryptocurrency Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). These DAOs have a treasury where anyone can submit proposals, which will help the crypto community grow and increase adoption of their currency.
Most notably, mainstream journalist Ben Swann was able to go completely independent due to a new partnership with cryptocurrency DASH. Swann agreed to brand his website Truth In Media and his videos with “Powered by DASH,” as well as release promotional videos explaining the ins and outs of the crypto. After Swann’s successful proposal several independent media outlets flooded the DASH community seeking funding. The Free Thought Project and We Are Change were also successfully funded, while Truth Theory, Press For Truth, and Collective Evolution were not. Many of these outlets are now looking for funding from another DAO, SmartCash.
Teaming up with cryptocurrency organizations seems like an ideal partnership. Facebook and other social media have recently blocked advertising from crypto groups; and by partnering with independent media with an audience of millions these organizations can reach a new audience.
However, just as with advertising dollars, some of the crypto crowd is wary of being associated with outlets and journalists who directly challenge the mainstream narrative and establishment politics. Also, these organizations’ main goal of partnering with indy media is to increase the adoption of their currency. Even if an independent media outlet can promise a reach of tens of millions of viewers, if those views do no translate to downloading crypto wallets or purchasing the currency then there is not much incentive for the DAOs.
For example, after five months of funding from DASH, Ben Swann’s arrangement was ended due to a lack of audience adoption. This in turn led to Swann announcing the end of original reporting on his aforementioned Truth in Media website. Cryptocurrency financing, it seems, is not the panacea to the independent media’s problems.
Whether we are talking about traditional advertising dollars, crowdfunding, subscriptions or monthly donations, or partnerships with DAOs, the fact of the matter is that journalism is not free. In the Internet Age, most people are used to the idea that news and information should be free. In fact, many people resent being asked to pay for the reporting. However, despite the belief that information should be free to the public, writers, researchers, and editors need to be paid somehow. The corporate media journalists and writers will generally outlast the independent media simply due to having access to those with deep pockets.
I fully expect to see the independent media shrink down to less than a handful of outlets. Perhaps the solution is for independent outlets to team up and form one new project that can sustain everyone instead of fighting for crumbs. I also think we will see individual reporters and personalities who have built up enough of a following survive on their own.
Additionally, many of the aforementioned issues have spawned innovative attempts to build new media and social media systems, like Steemit, that promote freedom of thought and more fairly incentivize people for participating in the process of posting and sharing information. However, these systems are complex and still in development. There is a bit of a race against time for independent outlets trying to restructure their approach during this transformative time.
As far as the mainstream corporate media goes, it seems like paywalls will be the name of the game. This means we are heading towards a world with a very tightly controlled mainstream press that readers must pay to access, and a very small independent/anti-establishment media.
If this is not the world you are interested in seeing, I highly suggest offering financial support to your favorite independent media outlet or journalist.