However, I have finally come to the conclusion that none of these approaches could ever work. Instead, I think the best solution is for all publishers to come together and agree to charge readers for content. Before you accuse me of having lost my mind, let me explain why I think this would work — and have a number of unexpected, positive side effects besides.
It’s true that paywalls have not worked in the past (with few exceptions), but this is most likely because they cannot work unless they are ubiquitous. So, let’s make paywalls universal, and create a watchdog organization (or repurpose one of the existing ones) that will strike against any publisher refusing to toe the line. Nothing like a little denial-of-service attack to discourage defectors.
As I started to contemplate the chain reaction that this no-free-content idea would initiate, I became increasingly excited. Let me elucidate.
First, if everyone had a paywall, readers would be forced to think carefully about what content they consume. Think about the productivity increase if all workers stopped reading articles about the “seven actresses you never knew had fake boobs.”
Second, I estimate that roughly 90% of all existing “content” sites would quickly go out of business, market forces being what they are. No more wasting time trying to figure out on which of 127,564 news sites I should read that story about Trump’s latest offensive remark.
Third, the same market forces that drove the riffraff out of business would maximize the probability that only the best publishers (or those with the best lawyers?) would survive. At long last, these high-quality publishers would become highly profitable as they could go back to making money for what they are good at: viz., writing content.
You may ask, what about all the poor writers and editors who would lose their jobs? And how would marketers peddle their offerings to the readers of the world? And here is where the idea gets even more exciting.
First, relieved of the burden of having to deal with advertisers, publishers could get rid of deadweight, including all ad ops and ad sales personnel. This would enable them to hire back some of the writers and editors they had to lay off.
Second, the current “separation of church and state” between editorial and revenue-generation would disappear. This would immediately and dramatically improve the mental health of writers and editors everywhere, which would make them generate better content, which would draw even more paying readers, and so on. A virtuous cycle, indeed.
But that’s not all. Marketers would suddenly have to find other ways of reaching consumers. What better solution than to hire the large number of unemployed writers and editors, who could dedicate their writing skills to creating dazzling, fascinating, informative content about products? This content could then be used to draw visitors who actually give a damn about the products. At last, the term native advertising might stop being a mere euphemism!
Of course, the chain reaction would spread to other areas: many ad-tech companies would have to reinvent themselves or go out of business. But if you know anything about technology companies, you know that there is a massive shortage of tech talent, so the sudden increase in talent supply would actually stimulate more reasonable wages, enabling more companies to drive more innovation.
See why I am so excited? I hope you will join me in asking online publishing concerns to put their weight behind this exciting idea and turn it into reality!