I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies in a middle-class, suburban home in Canada. When they built my childhood house, there were no fences in the backyards – none. Of course, there was a legal property line, but not a physical fence. As kids, we used to play in everyone’s backyards. Eventually, fences started going up dividing the backyards. And as we grew up, the front yards and the streets offered more interesting activities anyway.
This reminds me of the early days of the internet and the World Wide Web. The “information superhighway” as we used to call it. Open protocols, lots of interlinking and the promise of enlightenment from all of this free content.
These days, everywhere you look, walls are going up – figuratively and literally.
I am not a fan of paywalled news sites. They’re not a good business model for many media organizations and they’re bad for democracy. But mostly, paywalls are irksome for me because they are barriers to an internet based on sharing. And I’m a huge advocate of sharing information and insight freely and openly as a communication strategy in the information age.
In this article, I’m going to make a case for why current paywall subscription models are the wrong approach to monetizing news and insight. At the end, I am also going to suggest a bunch of publications that have not deployed paywalls – yet. And these are sites that you should be actively using as sources for your news sharing.
Paywalls Discourage Sharing Content
One reason paywalls suck is that I like to read a wide range of media sources to get a broad perspective and paywalls just get in the way of that. It’s too expensive to subscribe to 10, let alone 20 or more publications whose insights I regularly want exposure to.
Let me say at the outset that I understand the production of news coverage and analysis is valuable work, and I understand journalists need to get paid and that news media organizations are businesses that need to make a profit, and I get that the big social media sites are eating their lunch. But I just don’t think the individual publication paywall makes good business sense.
Yes, a paywall generates subscription revenue, but that revenue comes at a huge cost. Since the pricing of subscriptions limits how many people are willing to pay, there is a limited market which favours the the bigger, more prestigious media brands over the smaller ones. And the very paywall itself discourages sharing this gated content. Why share a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article if the majority of your social media followers cannot access the article because they don’t own a subscription to that publication?
Of course, some people still do share articles from their favourite paywalled publications, but I’m not sure why. I think in some cases, it is an oversight. People just don’t think about it because they are subscribers.
But really, why would you share a paywalled article? You really shouldn’t because it’s annoying to your audience. How do you feel when someone shares what looks like a good article on LinkedIn or Twitter and you click on it only to hit that paywall? Personally, I wonder why they shared it in the first place. It’s a similar feeling to when someone shares a broken link that you click and get a 404 missing page error. Mild annoyance. Inconvenience. Maybe you reach out and tell the person their link is broken so they can fix it. Or more likely you just move on. Attention is a fleeting thing.
Paywalls bad for sharing – and they’re bad, ultimately, for a democracy – but that’s a much larger discussion. The Washington Post’s slogan is spot on: Democracy dies in darkness. Ironically, it’s paywall is contributing to the darkness that will reign since every non-WaPo subscriber in our democracy is left in the dark.
If the paywall business model was such a good strategy for distributing information, why did many (most?) publications put their COVID-19 pandemic coverage outside the paywall? If something is really important and people’s health and safety depend on it, the paywalls get dropped precisely because they are barriers – to the public accessing important information and to attracting new readership.
The High Cost of Staying Informed
I recently ran a small poll on LinkedIn asking how much people would be willing to spend on paywalled media and news content. The results were surprising (or perhaps not), further undermining the viability of the business model of paywalls. Only six percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay $100 per month, while seventy-three percent stated they would not pay for any news whatsoever. People don’t want to pay for news subscriptions and they are unwilling to pay a large cumulative amount for numerous subscriptions.
“I refuse to pay for any paywalls. I take the point of view that if a publication wishes me to share one of their stories, and thereby gain more followers for themselves as a result, then I should be allowed to use the story free. Indeed, they should pay me for sharing it!” ~ Frank Feather
New business models are needed to serve both media companies and consumers better. Some kind of micro-payments or crypto technology could be part of the solution, especially one that incentivizes sharing and audience-building as well as revenue generation. Or an uber-subscription model that aggregates paywalled sites offers broader reading options. I guess that’s kind of what Apple News is, technically.
“I want a micropayment solution for buying what I want to read in the moment. Subscribing to a single source makes no sense to me. It is like buying Cable and having 4 channels I watch and 372 I don’t watch.” ~ Dion Lisle
Here are a group of reputable news sources that are paywalled, but incorporate some limited access to content based on a set amount of articles for free or allowing specific content for free. However, for full subscription access to these publications, your yearly costs would be somewhere in the range of $1,800 annually.
- American Banker: no free content – $1392/year
- The Atlantic: 5 free articles/month – $49.99/year
- Barrons: no free content – $52/year
- Business Insider: limited content accessible – $99/year
- Bloomberg: 10 free articles/month – $340/year
- Daily Telegraph: limited content accessible – £200/year
- Economist: 5 free articles/month – $199/year
- Financial Times: 3 free articles/month – $247/year
- Globe and Mail: limited content accessible $84/year
- Medium: 3 free articles/month – $55/year
- MIT Tech Review: 3 free articles/month – $35.95/year
- New Yorker: limited content accessible – $99/year
- New York Times: limited content accessible – $208/year
- Wall Street Journal: no free content – $155/year
- Wired: 4 articles/month – $5/year
Sample List of Non-Paywalled News Sites
In light of this and while we are all waiting for a better solution than subscribing to individual publications we set out to highlight some of our top go-to publications for both staying informed and sharing insightful content with others in social networks:
World Economic Forum: site | feeds
An international organization for public-private cooperation encouraging discourse among political, business, and leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.
ReadWrite: site | feeds
Delivers the latest news, analysis, and conversations on IoT and the connected world.
Financial Advisor: site | feeds
Delivers essential market information and strategies to help advisors better serve their clients.
Finextra: site | feeds
Covers a wide scope of fintech news geared towards banking and financial technology professionals.
ThinkAdvisor: site | feeds
Delivering content geared to financial advisors, wealth managers and other financial professionals providing industry news, regulatory and compliance trends, retirement developments, portfolio products, and more.
Abnormal Returns: site | feeds
Tadas Viskanta, Director of Investor Education at Ritholtz Wealth Management delivers a blog designed to educate clients and financial advisers on the best practices of investing and personal finance.
The Big Picture: site | feeds
A long-standing finance weblog covering everything investing related since 2003 delivered by Barry L. Ritholtz co-founder, chairman, and chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management LLC.
Future of Finance: site | feeds
Written and curated by Lex Sokolin, a futurist and fintech entrepreneur, this weekly edition pulls out top fintech and crypto developments, and connects them to the broader industry
Mauldin Economics: site | feeds
Chief economists and financial writer John Mauldin writes to help individual investors and institutions develop a clearer understanding of the forces driving the global economy and investment markets.
Note: This list is not comprehensive and I am not able to include all the worthy publications that I benefit from, therefore, I welcome any suggestions or corrections.
Disclosure: I do subscribe to a handful of news publications on line. My monthly subscriptions total less than $50.