Guest Columns Reader Revenue
6 mins read

Democracy dies behind paywalls

We all surf dozens – even hundreds – of sites and sources, yet none of us can afford to subscribe to everything we’d want to consume. But today we are being forced to subscribe wherever we go – cutting off everyone from access to diverse and crucial information. This is dangerous – here is why.

One of the most important taglines in recent history may be the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” To me, it is a mission statement about journalism’s role in society – to inform, to explain, to educate. It implies that if you don’t have access to information, you are simply in the dark. Today, in 2022, it looks like democracy now dies behind paywalls.

This morning, I wanted to read about how a new “anti-white bigotry” movement is gaining momentum – but then I hit a paywall. So I tried to access an article about Twitter dissolving its Trust and Safety Council, but hit the paywall again. A story about Moderna’s mRNA Cancer Vaccine looked very interesting, but could I read it? Not without a subscription.

And by the way, none of these articles were part of my subscription to the New York Times – so I could only read about them somewhere else. This happens to all of us all of the time.

The Internet gave rise to a massive paradigm shift – moving from the paperboy delivering news on our doorsteps to us now accessing any news we want to with a click on our phone. The way content is consumed has fundamentally changed – from a ‘push’ model to what can now be considered ‘pull.’ We live our lives online, looking for content ourselves — the stories we like, the news we’re interested in, jumping directly to the content we want.

The rise of paywall apartheid

In their search for revenue sources to compensate for dropping advertising, publishers are increasingly making quality journalism only accessible to paying customers. It’s understandable from a business perspective. If you have great quality content behind the paywall it attracts users and converts some of them into subscribers – that’s especially the case with exclusive content that explains and interprets important societal, political, and cultural events. But by focusing on subscriptions as their primary revenue source, publishers are making this journalism only accessible to paying subscribers, and that’s where the danger lies.

After all, what are we going to do if we simply don’t want to pay for a subscription (whether because we can’t afford it, we simply have too many subscriptions, it’s a nuisance to sign up, etc.)? It is a pain.

Because the nature of publishing has changed from push to pull, if a reader cannot afford a subscription to access a publisher’s content, they will end up going somewhere else, where the content is available to them easily, or for free, or they bail entirely.

According to a recent NRG and Toolkits report, 53% of U.S. consumers say they attempt to bypass paywalls on publishers’ websites when they encounter them. 66% of respondents say that paywalls make them dislike the website or publication, with 40% saying they instead search for the content on a different website. And this can have potentially disastrous results as it is precisely those freely accessible sites that often have incorrect, biased, or outright false perspectives and narratives.

Extreme political organizations would never have gained such popularity if their discussions and opinions were locked behind a paywall, but because it was free, it drew people in much easier than paid versions. In cases like this, by only allowing access to content via a subscription, publishers are potentially funneling people in the direction that they actually want to protect them from – into the arms of free content that may inspire them to think entirely differently.

The problem is real for everyone – even Elon Musk suffers from it. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview (prior to his acquisition of Twitter):

I don’t want to get a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but I’m sure they have, every other day, a good article that I’d like to read. But I don’t want, like 12,000 subscriptions… I understand that all these publications want to maximize their subscribers… But there’s a huge number of people who are never going to subscribe to that publication.

Elon Musk

73% of US consumers don’t subscribe to digital publications

According to data just released by the NRG and Toolkits report – 73% of US consumers don’t currently subscribe to digital publications at all. In other words, most people just won’t subscribe. This means we run the risk of being trapped in information bubbles, fed by search algorithms and the limitations of the content we are able to access. If we don’t subscribe to a publication, we don’t get access, which in turn means we have less access to diverse content. Instead, we turn to content that is free – and often more biased, and as the search algorithms learn and reinforce our consumption habits, the information bubble becomes ever more solid.

I think we’d all agree that everyone would benefit from more access to better, quality information. Better content allows for a better culture of discussion and debate, maybe even leading to more balanced political decision-making. And that is not only a good thing in its own right, but it also leads to potentially less extremist points of view.

Limiting the pool accessible to all other readers to just a few pieces of content or media can simply have dangerous effects on civil society and its understanding of democracy. The fewer people who have access to high-quality information from diverse sources, the easier it is for populist or even extreme platforms to pursue their business without counterarguments, and the greater the likelihood that half-truths and fake news will be believed.

As consumers, we want and need access to a diverse range of content without the obligation to subscribe, but with the intent to buy. And that diverse content, by its very definition, will live on several – or many – different publishers’ sites. We need access to them all. And that’s where we need to think about how subscription-less revenues come into play.

Subscription-less revenues

Subscription-less revenues come in various forms such as contributions (as the Guardian does them) or Time Passes that give timed access to content for a small fee or the ability to purchase individual articles. What they all have in common is that they give users a choice to buy what they want – and at the same time they generate revenues for publishers.

What they also all have in common is that they are low-friction – they’re affordable, they’re easy to access, and they’re painless to use – which makes it very easy for users to take that first step from being a reader to being a first-time paying customer.

With these low-friction models, a potential reader who cannot afford a subscription can still read an important article by a reputable publication because they were able to purchase just that article for a nominal price. Or they buy a Time Pass. They come away better, and more accurately, informed – and they’ve not gone elsewhere and formed incorrect or even dangerous opinions just because that was available for free.

And this offers huge financial benefits to publishers, who are now able to monetize those 98% of readers who would otherwise not subscribe. But let’s take money out of the equation and focus on the moral imperative – access to information is a right, but by putting it behind a paywall publishers are effectively making it a privilege. You can access the information only if you can afford the subscription.

I may be a dreamer here, but I am putting my tech expertise where my dreams are. We are daring to build a bridge between making it easy for users to buy relevant, informative, and educational content – even if they don’t want to subscribe – and generating revenues for publishers at the same time. I’d like to tell you more about how we’re going to achieve this in a future article.

When a right becomes a privilege it becomes a risk to society and can undermine the very fabric of democracy. To prevent this from happening, technology companies and publishers must work together – quite literally to make the world a better place.

Cosmin Ene (@cosmoene)
CEO, Supertab

Quality content needs to be rewarded – but it also needs to be fast and easy to access by
anyone. So we built Supertab to facilitate the value exchange between publishers and
consumers in a simple and fun way – whatever content you want to buy, just “put it on my tab“.
We‘ve built it, patented it, tested it over millions of transactions, simplified it, and are supporting publishers to maximize revenues in addition to ads & subscriptions. Website: