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Why making content on the internet free was our biggest mistake… and how to fix it

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Tom Goodwin, Head of Innovation for Zenith Media, explores how free content on the internet is destroying our credibility and our businesses, and looks at how we can turn it around.

I think the biggest mistake ever made by the human race was deciding to pay for the internet and the stuff on it with our attention.

It might seem unusual to suggest that up with climate change or terrorism, one of the greatest threats facing society is the quality of news and other information we absorb. Perhaps it’s even more far fetched to suggest that the problem is entirely attributable to the new mechanics and business models of the internet.  

Yet I honestly think that when we decided to give away news content for free, to monetize it through advertising, we inevitably sowed the seeds for the rise of extremism, intolerance, the bifurcation and stalemate of politics. The rise of ignorance and exposure in fake news, the divided angry nations and populist governments feeding on the fears of many, the filter bubble driven paranoia all stem from the consequences of this vital error.

We have effectively shifted from media owners as guardians to media owners as drug dealers, and in a fight for their survival, our society has been catastrophically altered, perhaps for several generations.

The internet’s dynamics first forced publications to place their valued content for free online, then monetized it first through our attention and then ultimately by our sanity and mental health. 

What if paying for news via advertising was the most expensive error we’ve ever made and, more helpfully, how do we get back on track?

Our insatiable brains

Technology is one of the fastest changes elements of life, while our bodies are one of the slowest. We’ve evolved slowly as a species for a different world, one of local and linear, not global and exponential, but above all else, we are built for scarcity. For much of human history, our greatest daily challenge was finding food. So over millennia, our bodies evolved to store calories, and to crave sugar as a speedy hit of energy. While we no longer need to behave this way, our bodies still crave the rush we’ve been conditioned to desire.  

Our need for news follows the same pattern. For years, education was for the privileged, and knowledge was valuable and scarce. We craved any form of stimulus or input, but there was little. 

The invention of the Internet, of user-generated content, of blogging platforms and fast, free data has changed all that. Information is abundant, but we still crave what seems most rush-worthy, the shocking, the salacious, the unexpected, the wild. The only way to deal with excess is to filter for the bits that hit the hardest and fastest. 

For years, news publishers had many roles. They employed people to undertake fact-checking, they paid journalists for quality news and investigative work, they kept business leaders and politicians honest, they acted somewhat as the court of public opinion. They represented a mark of quality, trust, a relatively known and understood but consistent bias; the brand represented an agreed perspective. 

News providers as the guardians

But above all else, they acted to nurture us. The newspaper or magazine became a holistic package designed around our long term and best interests. Newspapers worked because they had a symbiotic relationship with us. When we paid for papers either on the newsstand or through subscriptions, it ensured they created a balanced diet of what’s good for us, what’s nourishing and what’s fascinating, with little rushes of the more exciting. 

The paper served two customers, subscribers to maintain trust with, and advertisers to reach these people through the pages, all in a package that maintained standards, brand safety and attracted desirable quality readers in good numbers.

The internet destroys that bundle.

Where it went wrong

When newspapers first saw the internet coming, approaches varied. From ignoring it purposefully or strategically, to placing older stories and cheaper stories, to finally putting it all up there, the monied and fast-moving early years saw no paper left behind and soon thanks to social media, free access, better phones. 

We devoured news content like never before. Charts shot up as newspapers found a global audience. The assumption was that with users came attention and data, and with attention and data came money. We just needed to figure out how.

Five things then happened.

  1. Infinite scroll: In retrospect it was obvious, but digital media wasn’t like physical; the paper of the internet was infinite. Ad inventory in newspapers was scarce, but the more we swiped our phones, the more advertising we created. As millions came online, we had larger audiences, but near-infinite inventory. This kept digital advertising prices down.
  2. A data deluge: We now had much richer data on how people behaved online, we could see in never seen before clarity, what ads were skipped, what were never shown, what didn’t get clicked. We created the greatest pool of evidence to ensure that ads could never be seen as especially valuable. 
  3. Audience buying: Media was always a proxy for audience. If you wanted to reach rich yacht buyers, you’d advertise in Yacht Monthly, golf enthusiasts in Golf publications, and so on. The rise of niche and luxury media was predicated on the incredible value such audiences had. Yet in the digital age, you could find the people who visited expensive sites, track them and harass them later in a cheaper place. Quality media became almost irrelevant.
  4. Social media: Our relationship shifted away from the news brand and to the article. Now few people love pieces in the Guardian, they like things their friends share; they don’t go to, they go to Facebook and read what bubbles up. When we consume only articles, when we fail to visit homepages, the role of the newsbrand and it’s value evaporates. 
  5. Advertisers moving to platforms: And then in a cruel final blow, it was these platforms, pulling in users with the honey of articles hosted, shared and consumed for free, that became the most desirable place for advertisers. Platforms like Twitter, Flipboard, Snapchat and Facebook offered advertising with units in feed, with larger, more attractive, custom build ad units, not digital versions of what came before. But most pressingly, they could sell to advertisers aggregated audiences the size of which we’d never seen before, with immediate access. These platforms carried none of the costs of content production, none of the risks and responsibility of news coverage, and harvested all of the attention and all of the user data on which to sell ads, with margins unheard of.

Meet the dealer

Most audience buyers care about one thing: eyeballs. Programmatic advertising is a numbers game. It’s a black box to serve ads, collect money and run auctions, but the one input it needs is a vast tonnage of eyeballs.

It’s no longer possible for “premium” media to command more, only premium audiences. Longer, deeper, harder pieces to write cost more to make, and command no more money than a vacuous blog post. The quality article no longer maintains a long term relationship with a user, it no longer is subsidized by other pieces, it’s just bad economics.  

When we consume articles not papers, the role of an editor shifts to driving views per piece at the lowest cost. A young writer today is tasked by a high number of articles and a large number of viewers each and every day. 

Writers learn from real-time stats on readers that what people consume is what makes them outraged. Headlines once summarized the story; now they ask provocative questions to ensure a click to find out more. The world becomes a never-ending escalation of attempts to grab our attention and with something that could be written fast. And this becomes the digital wallpaper of today: gossip about social media celebrities, pictures of people looking very sexy or unflattering angles, funny videos of rats eating pizza on the subway, celebs aging badly, listicles of 5 top things you won’t believe, 8 things you wish you hadn’t read, you won’t believe what happens next…

And then the algorithms start.

When you are making money from ads, you are in the business of pulling in attention. The role of modern media is like that of a drug dealer. They don’t owe you anything, they don’t need you to like them, they don’t need to keep you around for long. They just need to keep you coming back.

Taboola and OutBrain with their “You may also like” offer even more tantalizing glimmers into yet more shocking stories where someone else can monetize your thirst for the human need to feel shocked or appalled or enraged. 

Tech people’s brains aren’t like editors. They live a life optimized around numbers, not meaning. For them, every human problem has a software solution, and every solution is about code, algorithms and optimization. When platforms are used to upload child pornography, the instinct on behalf of the platform is to think there is a user behaving badly, not a tech platform that should have seen it.

The art and logic of code has now worked wonders with not only establishing pieces that perform well, but also ensuring time on site and interest is increased further by linking this to similar content. The system has been gamed to allow winner-takes-all economics, where something especially outrageous that makes people angry enough to comment is sure to continue to improve well. 

Slowly these algorithms learn what we like, and offer us more of the same. A few clicks from a balanced piece on climate change can bring up anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and the flat earth movement. 

We always knew the media wasn’t fair, there is no absolute truth, all news is an opinion, but we always, when visiting a newsstand knew that other opinions existed. We knew that to remain trusted around the country, a newspaper or TV show could not routinely lie or produce ‘fake news’, because it would fail. 

No such dynamic exists in the modern digital world. A video proclaiming any extreme and marginalized viewpoint looks mainstream enough when it’s accessible through YouTube and has millions of views.  

And yet the algorithms and our search history are designed not to create one filter bubble, but many. There is no middle ground or nuance in a drug-dealing world of attention.

A better future

It is only by really understanding this grim history and causal journey that we can best understand the steps to a better solution, most of all because it shows how quickly a change could come. 

The most catastrophic element to the downward spiral followed so far has been its self-reinforcing nature, but the great news is that it offers the same virtuous cycle on the way back. 

We must recognize the interests of all parties are aligned. Readers want better content, publishers want to make quality material and be paid, and advertisers want more premium ways to connect with people. The dynamics are all there to serve everyone’s interest, but we need something to change first. 

The key first step is to understand that, for the first time since the dawn of the internet (and in some people’s memories), we must now pay for quality content. Free information is a recent anomaly. News and journalism are worth paying for; our sanity, mental health, press freedom, and political leadership running amok are far more expensive prices to pay.

However you work the math, it’s clear that advertising is not enough to support quality media. Advertisers are aware that our attention is ever more divided and we are more distracted, so in the current reality, it’s not feasible to expect ad rates to increase enough. 

We need people to pay for media and we need the industry to promise an increase in quality. Let’s see fewer pieces – not driven by viewer metrics but by the quality of engagement – to build longer-term relationships. 

We can see the glimmer of hope. From the UK to the USA, Sweden to Germany, quality news sites today show that the myriad of studies that say people won’t pay for content were wrong. It takes a better quality of content, a strong brand, and above all else, a smooth sign up process.

Subscriptions aren’t the saviour

But the current model works only for a few outlets because our wallets have a limit; something that is reflected in other industries. We’d never subscribe to singular TV channels or several record labels: news can be no different. I love Chicken Tikka Masala more than anything else in the world, followed by pizza, but I don’t want to subscribe to a food service that offers only both. 

We have to accept that it’s financially impossible for a person to subscribe to more than 3-6 publications, and most curious readers have a portfolio of hundreds of sites they want to read from. Our social media feeds mean we consume broadly but superficially, and newsbrands need to work with this, not against it. 

A word on micropayments

If a typical Conde Nast, Time or Hearst Article makes about 1/10th of a cent serving me ads, then why would a micropayment solution want to charge me $1 for the same piece? I’d imagine a fee of 5¢ per standard article would bring in far more money than ads or subscriptions ever did, so long as it’s done in a smart way. But it was Apple iTunes that saved the music industry by recognizing than $1 per song was sensible, and that it needed to be a delightful experience. 

We’ve not come close to that. Sites like Blendle want to become the new front pages for other’s content. They want to be foreground when we actually need technology to work in the background, never to be thought about. 

Unfortunately, many news sites do not employ great design. Cancellation options are hidden and require convoluted phone calls. Websites today don’t work consistently across browsers or devices, let alone keep you logged in. Consumers pay too much already with a cognitive burden and don’t ever get the joy of a seamless experience.

Paying at the gateways

The term ‘surfing the internet’ was a wonderful metaphor to explain the way we skim content. Unlike reading a book, the way we devour the internet is based on a forward shallow motion, not vertical depth. The internet today consists of pages dynamically constructed by call-outs to various servers, and websites become a dynamically created slate that pulls everything we want into a place we go to.

The internet today is one of several horizontal layers. We have the primary interface through which we access content, often curated by our friends and contacts, as well as promoted content and algorithmically placed stories. It can be Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Flipboard, WeChat, Snapchat Apple News… each becomes a gateway to the content below.  

The next layer is the content host. This could be the New York Times, De Bild, BBC, a blog or more, and below this layer lies the servers with content stored in CMS systems ready to surface.

The key to payments is for them to be processed by a company who has the primary interface with customers, who understands the technology and who is agnostic to all sources of content. We need companies who understand contemporary behaviors and how to design good websites; companies that can bundle the data and use it to create extra value of browsing, but ideally in a more responsible way.

The obvious solution is for these gateways to be the owners of news payments. I see the solution as Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook becoming the administrators of the payment layer. 

We pay $10 or $20 per month for access to a set number of pieces per month. To reduce clickbait, articles closed within 5 seconds would be refunded, the publisher never paid and their quality score lowered. Users would simply join Twitter Plus or LinkedIn Extra and use credit card details or PayPal to join, like any other subscription. 

The secret to success is to destroy the idea of a paywall. We stream Spotify because it’s easy, we browse Netflix because it’s frictionless. If we needed to pay per movie on Netflix, to check our bank balance at ATM’s, even if we needed to log in to buy items at individual stores, the rate of usage would plummet. 

Human behavior is very hard to change. We have to work with current dynamics – apps like WeChat that do everything in one – not against them. We can’t ask people to make new accounts, to visit new sites, to share content in new ways or to replicate the networks we’ve constructed over 10 years of frenetic social searching and relationship building.

The next stage of the internet is one permeated on global frictionlessness. Facebook launching a currency to pay for things, Instagram offering the chance to buy things with just one touch, Google Maps becoming an interface you can book restaurant reservations from. 

Publishing can no longer run on chasing clicks and hits, like a drug dealer. Let’s make better news, a better internet, and a better experience. 

Tom Goodwin is the Head of Innovation for Zenith Media, and the author of Digital Darwinism: Survival of the Fittest in the Age of Business Disruption. He is also a keynote speaker and writer about changes in technology, society and business. Find him on Twitter and Linkedin.