money has to come from somewhere, or interesting and challenging writing dies
As my username suggests, I am on team pay wall. However, that comes with its own risks. The NYT, or at least most desks within the NYT, is terrified of offending its own readers. The threat of an audience revolt is real, and this prevents real reporting from taking place, because it's natural for people - all of us, not just NYT readers - to prefer lies that confirm our biases to truths that are uncomfortable. Advertisers care about 'brand safety', of course, but they don't really care about reader comfort, as long as people keep reading.
One of the reasons I like this blog is that Freddie clearly doesn't pander to his readers and makes it clear that if people are so offended or in disagreement that they want to unsubscirbe, they are more than welcome to do so. There are other publications that don't do this, and that bend in the wind, just as they would if an advertiser told them to spoke a story. Ultimately, then, the danger of both approaches can only be resolved at the level of management and ethos.
I agree completely with the basic point: services for money. I do want to add that it would be great to have a third alternative to advertising and subscription models. It would be great if there was an option for buying individual articles. Occasionally a random internet deep dive will take me to something like a 1985 interview in the Bloomington Gazette. Obviously, I do not want a subscription to the Bloomington Gazette. But I would be happy to pay 10 or 25 cents to read the article. If it is feasible to implement such an option, it would be quite profitable. You would be able to sell to occasional readers, but regular readers would still prefer the price of a subscription.
Similarly, remember the “why do I have to pay for all these channels I don’t watch? Why can’t I just pick the ones I want and pay for those?” Vs. “now I have to have like 7 different subscriptions just to see the things I want to watch.”
The entire tech company strategy of selling a product at loss in order to gain market share was already running into major headwinds before interest rates started skyrocketing. The era of (nearly) free money and cheap products and freebies is over (for now).
I understand the necessity of getting people to pay for journalism if journalism is to be sustainable. However, there should be a middle ground between "free" and "an indefinite monthly subscription that we make intentionally difficult to cancel." Newspapers let you subscribe online easy as pie, but make you call them and navigate a phone tree to cancel a subscription. (This happened to me with the Wall Street Journal; I expect NYT, the Washington Post, etc., are similar.) It feels scammy to me and would make me reluctant to subscribe to any of them even if I had the money to spare.
More broadly, if you read print newspapers, it's never been necessary to provide a credit card number and make an indefinite financial commitment. You can just buy one copy of one issue. The industry needs to come up with something similar for the digital realm, some frictionless way of making digital micropayments, say 50 cents for one article or a couple bucks for a whole day's news. Of course it would be inconvenient to do so many small transactions and online payments have fixed transaction costs, so you'd have to think creatively about how to make that work. Perhaps there could be payment aggregators who collect, say, a month's worth of micropayments from you, and send it on to each publication along with the payments from everyone else who made them. I'd like to think there's a better, simpler way, but that's one possibility I've considered.
Basically, news these days is a lot like coffee - people have lots of options, and no one coffee shop in any urban area has a captive audience. If I walked into a shop and found that I was unable to just buy a coffee but instead had to sign up for a monthly Coffee Partners subscription, I'd walk out again. If news organizations are serious about wanting people to pay, they need to realize that this is the position they're in and find ways to make the process of paying easier and more convenient.
Sort of a side point, but there’s another class issue lurking here: a lot of media, professional, and university types have their subscriptions paid for by their employer/school, so for them it’s EASY to read thirty articles a day and stay on top of whatever opinion articles we’re all supposed to be talking about today. This enables, I think, a fair amount of the “well, did you read the ARTICLE???” browbeating you see on social media. No, I didn’t, because unlike you, I don’t get it for free.
(Or, sometimes: yes, I did, by defeating the paywall, because I’m a pathetic social media addict who’s afraid of not having an opinion about Today’s Thing.)
This is silly and annoying when it comes to the daily churn of opinion pieces. But it gets a bit more serious when it comes to academic research publications, which are also often hidden behind paywalls.
Great piece, and one I agree with. Though I'm broke, you were my first paid subscription on Substack; even though you gave out so much for free, at some point I just thought: "If I can't spare one latte per month for this kind of writing, I'm the asshole" (Note: LESS than a latte, as I live in Democrat paradise Los Angeles, and a decent latte from a privately-owned coffee shop can run in the neighborhood of $8). The Substack model works well for us working poor (Middle-aged and rapidly approaching old Uber driver trying desperately to finish school) because, although it's usually more expensive to pay monthly, I'm doing well enough that I can take the the $6 hit while barely noticing.
But I have a question: Do you think we're going to see more of the Bari Weiss "Common Sense" model where we see more writers under one banner? The Dispatch comes to mind as as well, as well as a couple other sites I'm planning to sign up for. I think, that for me, I'm going to commit to signing up to one paid form of media monthly; it's something I've been thinking about and this is the second article I've seen in two days about paying your share (The other was a pitch that if we want free speech on twitter, we need to pay monthly, becoming the customer rather than the product.)
Finally, as far as something like Compact, you know what would be nice? Let people read the article, and perhaps one more, for a dollar or two. It would be a great way to let people see what the site is about while still contributing. This would, of course, benefit writers like you who have an online army of followers who could easily bring in whatever they paid you for one article, or at least subsidize it. If it wasn't for you, Jeff Mauer wouldn't be getting my other $6/month, so thanks for that as well.
Okay, going to "Check my privilege" while heading off to grind in L.A. traffic for the next 8-10 hours. Viva patriarchy.
Ah, but Musk has the temerity to have no filter between his brain and his mouth, and so he says the kind of shit that I suspect many millionaires and billionaires are secretly thinking. That's his real crime: not being circumspect enough about all of this.
I think it's kind of funny that you start by talking about how much capitalism sucks and then go on to talk about pay walls as a business model and how people should be willing to pay for good writing.
Freddie, please delete if self-promotion is verboten, but I just wrote a review of Tim Hwang's The Subprime Attention Crisis on my substack. Hwang makes a compelling case that the whole programmatic advertising model is fucked: one study found that user-tracking adtech is 500% more expensive than traditional ads, but only generates 4% more revenue. Huge swathes of the adtech market are built on quicksand, and advertisers are finally getting wise to this, judging by Google and Facebook's stock prices.
More data here:
If Musk were to promise to tighten the censorship regime on Twitter, the bluecheck set would be falling all over themselves to praise his enlightened rule.
I think what is allowing the NY Times (and the WSJ, WaPo, and other national outlets) to thrive is that local journalism is to a large extent dead and its customer base has been scavenged by the big players. This has all sorts of terrible implications--nationalizing local politics is probably a significant contributor to polarization and partisanship.
I'd like to have an online version of the newsstand. For example, I don't read the Washington Post frequently enough to subscribe to it but I'd pay $1 to read a particular issue once in a while.
I have no issue with paywalls and I really like the Substack model but I stay on the free version with a lot of Substack writers simply because I don't have time to read them all consistently.
This might turn out to be paid-for Twitter's killer feature: you get x free articles a month from paywalled sites by accessing them as a blue check from a blue check's tweet
I want to applaud both your attitude in this article, but especially the article you apparently wrote in Compact (which I'm not going to read, because I have a limited media budget, and that's life).
Can we talk more about the Twitter thing, because it's driving me absolutely insane to watch the ants skitter around because they have, for whatever reason, been relying on corporate overlords as the best way to ensure whatever kind of stranglehold they want to get on popular discourse and now the Wrong Corporate Overlord is in charge.
You know what? Maybe don't offload all your social media discourse to corporations.
i've never been much of a Twitter fan, but this is finally encouraging me to get the f*** off the Facebook teat as well.
Riffing on that: maybe the biggest collateral damage done by the wonders of modern technology, particularly as repped by The Web Blob we’ve all fallen so hard for in the last couple decades, is that a free lunch is our birthright. And that it will save us all. And that we’re going to suffer grievously if we can’t have it.