PUBLISHERS ARE LOOKING FOR NEW WAYS TO CHARGE READERS FOR ONLINE ARTICLES, BUT SO ARE GOOGLE AND APPLE. THE FUTURE OF THE WEB MAY BE AS A PAID-FOR PLATFORM, EXPLAINS
Why you could soon be paying for the web as publishers are looking for new ways to charge readers for online articles
Historically, the web has been free – giving the idea away without charging royalties was Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s main innovation, after all – but a number of factors point to a paid-for future. Most scary of all: it might be controlled by a Google paywall or yet another Apple subscription.
It started with music. Record labels tried their best to digitally protect albums and songs, but the ease of piracy and rise of Napster meant that a generation of web users saw paying for music as voluntary to the point of being stupid.
This culture didn’t change due to harsh crackdowns on music pirates, but because of the simplicity of buying songs and subscription streaming services such as Spotify. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, music revenues in 2017 rose for the second year in a row, the first time that’s happened since 1999. Similar evolutions have followed for television and movies, thanks to services such as Netflix and Hulu.
So where does that leave news and other written content? “Such a shift has already been going on for a while,” said Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, digital economist at the Oxford Internet Institute, adding that iTunes and Spotify succeeded over free piracy because of convenience – and that hasn’t yet happened for news. “Contrast that with some online newspapers when you just want to read that story, you still have to give them credit card details and set up an account. There’s quite a few hurdles.”
We’ve seen the costs of relying on advertising: revenues not only aren’t strong enough, but behavioural tracking technologies gobble up our data, spurring a quarter of users to install ad blockers, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau.
Plenty of ideas have been kicked around to fund the next few years of the internet, from micropayments and memberships (The Guardian, which is close to breaking even) to paywalls (The Times and The New York Times) to subscription services, a so-called “Spotify for news”. Each of those methods has likely been tried by a publisher whose stories, journalism or other content you read or watch.
“There isn’t a silver bullet business model that’s going to save the industry,” said Pete Brown, senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “Right now, I’m not massively concerned about the big players. It’s local journalism that has far more to worry about, in terms of finding sustainable business models that enable them to do the work we all need them to do.”
The challenge is convenience for readers and ease for publishers. Like the music
“Search – and Google in particular – obviously drives a lot of traffic, so news outlets have been looking to Google for help”