The Best Content Used To Be Free

I’ve recently noticed a trend: More and more high-profile online publications are gating some or all of their content behind a pay wall.

Apple News started doing this a while back, and it’s eerie just how many “Apple News +” articles are the ones I want to read.  Motley Fool has been this way for years, and Business Insider transformed somewhere along the way from one of my favorite publications to a thorn in my side because I don’t pay for their access and I probably never will, even though they have great content. 

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times have led the way on gated content ever since I can remember, and even USA Today has started offering “subscriber-only” content, which got me to really sit up and take notice.  There’s a bunch of sports sites that require a paid subscription like The Athletic.  Is this the wave of the future?

Digital media consolidation has been both good and bad.  In one respect, consolidation has led to better, higher quality content across the board.  Larger audiences spend more time with digital content and the platforms where they reside.  That turns into more ad content, more ad revenue and better content to feed the proverbial beast.  It has also weeded out some of the sketchier, lower-production quality content and made it easier to find the good stuff. 



As the saying goes, the cream rises to the top.  But what about news content?  Is news content really that different if I find it on USA Today or the New York Times vs. finding it somewhere else through a Google search?  Do I need to start paying for the “quality” news content?

Much of the time, when I find an article that is blocked, I know I can simply go to Google, search, and find the content on my own.  It may not be the exact article, but most often I’m able to find somewhere else that has referenced the same data or insights and repurposed or published it on a different site.  The simple truth is most of the content I see as paid is content I don’t really need.  It’s content that is “nice to have” but not a must-have.  My life will continue just fine not knowing the details of that specific article. 

I find the paid content situation similar to the streaming services situation.  The best video content has been swallowed up by streaming services and as a result, I subscribe to a number of them, including Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBOMax.  Do news content providers expect me to settle into a future where I pay for two, three or four different news content subscriptions as well?  For that to happen, the rest of the internet has to agree that only the best content lies behind a gated wall, and that is not likely to happen.

Video content quality is directly proportional to the budget with which it is created.  Written content has a lower threshold and is based on the intelligence and insight of the writer.  If you invest more in the written word, it does not guarantee a better outcome. 

Writing is more democratized; once a story has broken, it is in the public eye and anyone can write or talk about it.  That means breaking a story is the only competitive advantage, and that value decreases dramatically once the story has broken. 

To that end, even though a lot of quality content is now behind a pay wall, I don’t see myself paying for very much content in the near term.  Pay walls are a great business model for a portion of the audience and they help support the publications that use them, but I can’t see a world where they are the only way to engage with great written content.  The best example I have to dispute the pay-wall model is Medium (and of course MediaPost).  These are examples of where quality content is available and you just need to know where to look.

Pay walls are fine, but the internet will never fully embrace the all-paid model.

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