Why do we Balk at Paying for Digital Content?

Some years ago, I wrote a piece called Paying for nothing is Paying for Something in Countercurrents.org. The premise of the article was simple: The aversion for paying for digital content is short-sighted and ultimately very damaging to the overall quality of content produced, to journalism (especially investigative journalism), and to any notions we harbor that our privacy is protected. Free content, as the title implied, is hardly free in the larger sense.

The movement from physical, long-form content to digital, typically short-form content has many antecedents of which most prominent is the business-model forced upon publishers. Ultimately content is a “social contract” between 4 parties: Readers, authors, publishers, and advertisers. In this unfortunate-but very real- formulation, readers and authors suffer the most, but are not entirely blameless. If content is free, then publishers are forced to rely on advertisers (or sponsors of another form) for money and the race to the bottom becomes inevitable. Simply look at the decimation of newsrooms world-wide and the degradation of content including the diminution of intelligent, investigative, and muckraking journalism if the argument is unconvincing otherwise.

Indeed many publishers thought that the conversion to digital content would be easier than it turned out to be. Unfortunately, most of us simply refused to pay for most digital content, defaulting to the notion that information delivered in the ether was “nothing” and that indeed paying for nothing defies common sense. This notion is ironic, even risible, given the emphasis we’ve all put on “digital” everything and our desire to spend thousands of dollars on devices and digital experiences. Why is content different? It could have been different, even positive.

One important element of this turn was the possible environmental benefits from this change of business model. Indeed, it’s unclear we’ve made any real progress here. There’s no evidence that paper consumption has gone down in the digital age. In fact, is has increased significantly. Possibly, there is a reduced carbon-footprint on the transportation side but I for one have not seen any credible report that either the impetus or the outcome of this move to digital is pro-environment. In fact, digitization has “hidden” carbon emissions associated with it, including the release of carbon with every google search and an increasing carbon footprint associated with the sheer quantity of data we hoard and don’t delete.

Another helpful potential element was the shortened time-to-availability that the digital turn offers us. In a historical moment in which so much is at stake- regarding public health, climate change, nationalism and violence, economic inequality- the ability to publish progressive materials and to get them in front of readers quickly is incredible. Imagine a manifesto about climate change or a clarion call to activism taking a year to “get to market” in print; by the time the book appears, the world will have been degraded that much more. What this does not mean is that slipshod analyses with no peer-review and no “authorial burden” is good- indeed the Web is littered with such pabulum; instead, the implication is simply that when great content is developed, it can be distributed and ingested quickly.

But- and here’s the rub- none of this goodness emerged as people were not willing to pay for good content. Think for a moment about the 4 parties that content brings together: reader, author, publisher, and advertiser/sponsor. Now play out the dynamic:

Publisher commissions author to create content in the hopes that readers will “take some action” based on the content. Advertiser, the putative beneficiary of those actions, pays the publisher to host the content and to market it so that it “receives” the products/outcomes of those actions. So far, so good right? Well let’s keep going:

Well, the cycle-times for content production don’t make for long-form, deep content. So the author, often a recently laid off journalist who is freelancing and getting paid-by-the-piece, produces a piece of content that does not impel the actions that the advertiser was hoping for (in quantity of quality.) Advertiser then tells the publisher that the amount to be paid for this inadequate performance is less than the publisher was budgeting for. At this point, what does the publisher do? Simple:

Publisher goes back to the advertiser and suggests that they do another piece of content to make up the difference. The advertiser agrees and the publisher then goes back to the author to product another artifact. The author, trying to make a living, has such an arrangement with other publishers and is overburdened but decides anyway to produce the second piece of content for more income. Given the time-scales and pressures on the author- and the annoyance of the disappointed reader, the second article isn’t considered up to snuff. Advertiser again doesn’t get the flow of action it wanted and all parties swirl towards the bottom.

Is there a way out of this soul-killing race to the bottom?

Well, let’s go back to the point where it breaks down: The publisher-reader connection. The reader/consumer has not offered any money for the right to ingest and learn. But money is changing hands at all other connection points. In effect, the publisher is offering content to the consumer/reader in exchange for the right to continue to market to him/her and for “clicks” or “actions.” The reader/consumer however only “clicks” or “acts” if the content is meaningful or helpful and since the content is often slipshod and not useful, the reader/consumer does not assent to this form of payment. And the whole system breaks down.

Now, if the author was paid well and had the time to create deeper, meaningful, and decision-supporting content, the entire equation changes. If indeed the ultimate consumer of the content was willing to pay to learn and to help support economic or other decisions, then great content can be developed. If authors were not compelled to produce bushels of so-so content and could spend time researching, thinking, and producing useful material, the “social contract” between author and reader, vectored through the publisher is intact. In this model, advertisers are at a minimum only partially responsible for the publisher’s solvency and might even be entirely irrelevant to the process.

But people have to pay for content for this social contract to be intact. And people have to learn to pay for digital content just as they always paid for magazines, books, newspapers, journals, and other sorts of “content” including business, medical, and other sorts of advice.

Had we established this and taken it to heart, we would not have seen journalism and other forms of content production erode thus. We are at a nadir. We are awash in fake news, prurient clickbait, and nonsense masquerading as real thought. This is the exhaust pipe of the Web. Or maybe it’s the chassis. Indeed, in this time of crisis, when physical content/media is so hard to get given our lockdown, we should have been able to seamlessly switch to the digital world without putting publishers and authors at risk of insolvency.

It’s never too late. Covid-19 has taken lives and will continue to do so, but let’s not let it destroy important pillars of our society: Journalism, publishing, and authorship.

We all see the writing on the wall- this pandemic will require us to change habits. So let’s not simultaneously decry the paucity of great content and continue our unwillingness to pay. None of wants our labors to go unremunerated and each of us depends on fact-based and thoughtful information to make decisions that affect our lives. So think of your favorite news site, magazine, book publisher, or journal like you do of Netflix or Hulu- you pay them right? So why do you hesitate from paying for content that could educate you, arm you with facts, and help society?

Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist


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One Comment

  1. We already pay – most of my hardware and ISP traffic is used to run the ads I ignore. What we need are handy micro-payments, instead of yearly subscriptions.