Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Paywall Dilemma

Sharing links to articles is immensely popular on social media. The percentage of Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook posts that share a link is very high. In fact, clicking on links in social media posts is how many people consume their news and learn about what interests them. 

Yet, there is a storm brewing in the social media world. No, I’m not talking about any politics. It’s about the tension between the social media companies and the publishers of the articles to the links that we post. 

The media companies have been under a great deal of pressure to transition their online revenue away from advertising to the more predictable subscription revenue. The reason for that has been that Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have taken over a big chunk of advertising budgets. Yes, those are the same companies that enable us to share the links to articles in the publications they are putting out of business. 

The drive to switch from ad-supported free readers into subscribers forces the online publications to set up paywalls that stop us from reading their content and entice (or even force) us to subscribe. Publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, or even TechCrunch are becoming more and more determined to make us pay for their content. And I don’t blame them, good content can’t be free. 

But herein lies the problem. The social media companies that live of social interactions - that to a large extent consists of sharing links to articles - are also the ones forcing the media companies to raise the paywalls that prevent the sharing. 

As a result, our experience is becoming more and more frustrating. Every time I click on a link that someone shared, I get asked to subscribe. It’s getting to a point where I don’t want to click on any links anymore because I know that I won’t be able to read the article anyway. That reduces my engagement which in turn will hurt the social media companies – the very companies that have been siphoning advertising dollars away from the media publications! 

As a user, I don’t mind subscribing to one or two daily newspapers and half a dozen magazines, but I can’t subscribe to all of them. Syndication makes the problem even worst, as I can read a particular article as a subscriber in the San Jose Mercury News, and yet I can’t read that same article on The Seattle Times website! 

It’s a real dilemma. We want to share and consume articles via social media. That’s a big part of the social media appeal. At the same time, the publishers deserve to get paid for their articles. Yet, we can’t possibly subscribe to all the publications and we share links to articles from the publications we subscribe but our friends/followers don’t.  

So, what should give? Should we ban sharing links on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn altogether? That’s not likely, even though that kind of social media experience would address many of the disinformation problems we are facing online today.  

Should the social media companies start paying kickbacks to publishers for every time someone clicks on their article? That sounds intriguing, but Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft have been enjoying a really profitable business model and they will not easily start sharing those profits with the publishers. To a large extent, the publishers also benefit from the traffic social media sends their way. Actually, maybe the publishers should pay the social media companies a kickback! 

Should perhaps technology solve the problem? Maybe the social media companies could implement an AI-based abstract service that would give us a 2-3 sentence summary of each article without actually taking us to it? Yeah, that sounds like something Google would do (in fact, I think they tried) but the publishers and readers would hardly accept that kind of solution. 

Or, what if there could be a paid meta-subscription service that enables me to subscribe to every article on a particular subject, no matter where it is published? Let’s say, I am interested in astronomy and could subscribe to all astronomy articles, no matter which magazine they appear in. The subscription service would handle the complex commercial relationships with all the publishers. As a result, I could read any article on astronomy via a link shared on social media, without having to be a subscriber to all of those astronomy magazines. 

I am not sure if any of those solutions will work. But I predict that something will be changing in the next couple of years as more and more articles are published behind paywalls while social media drives more and more traffic to those articles. The readers are stuck in the middle and that’s never a steady state. 


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