In the last two or three months, The News Statesman, Wired, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg.com all announced new paid-content initiatives. The New York Times already has two million paying readers, The FT is chasing a million and The Guardian is on track to break even next year thanks to reader revenues.
On the geopolitical scale, it doesn’t seem like such a radical ideal; getting the people who use the stuff you make to pay for it. That’s how most businesses work… butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. It’s even how magazines and newspapers used to work.
The cynics among you, and there will be a few, will see this as just another publishing pivot, another fad in an industry long-defined by fads.
But this is different. This is a welcome return to first principles.
Past strategic shifts in publishing, at least since the turn of the century, have been driven by technology. Publishers, old and new, repeatedly embraced innovative new content distribution platforms and formats with the dream of winning at Silicon Valley scale.
That dream is dead. Mark Zuckerberg killed it when he promoted baby pictures and news of local fetes above publisher and brand content in Facebook’s newsfeed.
Returning to paid content doesn’t mean abandoning technology, forgetting new places to publish or new ways to tell stories, but it does place innovation firmly in the service of meeting reader needs with products that they will pay for.