Is There A Point At Which the Paywall Model Is Successful?

A newspaper puts up a paywall. Three months later, there are 35 subscribers. Too bad someone just spent a small fortune acquiring that newspaper, eh?

There’s a lot of debate about the paywall model, and whether or not it works, and where, and why. As a creative professional, I’m growing more and more concerned with the fact that prices for content are falling in an environment where so much content can be obtained for free or at very low cost. (Including the content on this very website; hoisted by my own petard! I contribute to the very system which is crushing people like me.) And I’m growing especially concerned with the way in which writers are exploited. People seem to forget sometimes that writing is work.

Freelancers are increasingly being paid less for their work. Hell, a lot of websites have achieved the ultimate coup and gotten people to write, submit works of art, and make videos for free. Things which companies would have paid for in previous eras are being handed over on a silver platter by users who are desperate to feel connected, to feel like they matter, to have their voices heard. Some of these people do unpaid work because they think it will lead to paid work (it does, for a lucky few) and some people just don’t seem to care.

Other sites pay a pittance to writers who churn out large amounts of content, and these sites make money every time they license that same content for republication somewhere else. Or they offer writers “ad sharing” agreements which might work for people who can generate a lot of content, but which are effectively worthless when it comes to most folks. And many people don’t have the ability to make a leap of faith, turn out content they aren’t paid for up front, and wait to see if ad revenue rolls in.

Newspapers are having their budgets slashed, which means that they’re less able to commission pieces from opinion columnists, and some rely on columnists who will write for free because they’re seduced by a name; some reason that just being published under the right masthead will help them get their foot in the door somewhere else, somewhere where they will be paid, somewhere they can build a career. The same budget cuts result in slashing funding to foreign desks and pinching pennies wherever possible, even if it leads to bad journalism.

Some bloggers get blog to book deals, sure. But they’re rare. And the terms might surprise you. Although many people seethe with jealousy about them, deals for first books, even for bloggers, usually don’t come with awesome contracts, and who’s to say that you will get picked up for another contract? After all, there are hundreds of people lined up waiting behind you with their free content, and the publisher can just move on to one of them.

Julie and Julia may have been made into a movie, but that’s one blog. How many blogs are there? Well over 100 million. Who’s to say who gets lucky and who doesn’t, but the bottom line is that unless you are willing to aggressively hype yourself, to deal with all the ugliness of the blogosphere and come out swinging, and potentially to compromise what you want to get what you need, you’re probably not going to go far on a blog.

As concerns grow about the increasingly dangerous climate for creative professionals, I’m seeing a return of the paywall. Once, paywalls were everywhere. Over time, they broke down, because sites like the New York Times realized that they couldn’t compete with sites which were giving stuff away. Why subscribe to the Times when you can read the HuffPo, or other sites which syndicate content? And, now, why subscribe to the Times when you’ve already had the milk for free? And apparently ad revenue isn’t supporting as much as we thought it was, because people are increasingly citing lack of ad revenue when they announce that they are putting up paywalls. Sites like Hulu, which started out free, are now pondering the creation of paid subscriptions.

Is there a point at which the paywall model is successful? I honestly don’t know. Something definitely needs to change here, because this model may become unsustainable, and content is already suffering as a result of it. The expectation of free and low-cost content has lowered standards, and the next generation of creative professionals is being reminded that their work isn’t valued anymore, at least, not in the same way. As in, the way which ends with food on the table.

The system of the past was criticized for creating a creative elite. This system is touted because anyone can be published. But are we losing the signal for the noise? And who is to say that we aren’t creating a new creative elite? Everyone knows Dooce. Not everyone knows Chally. Why is that? Have we really just maintained the infrastructure of the previous system while lying to ourselves with lofty claims about how information likes to be free? And will there come a point when creative work is valued again?