There are fears of a Substack bubble, too, and the financial pressure added by having more and more large and mid-tier publications taking the paywall route won’t help. We’re already at a point where so many streaming services are available that, according to a 2019 Deloitte study, users are suffering from “streaming fatigue.” People find toggling between subscriptions, managing all their logins, and trying to track down the content they want annoying and, aside from the complete failure of some services like Quibi, early evidence suggests that piracy is threatening a comeback if streaming services don’t improve their user experience. Online, 2019 saw the beginning of a war between publishers and paywall-jumping browser extensions created for frustrated (or cheap) users.
None of this is inherently bad. It’s certainly no worse than having writers grind out posts that read “EXCLUSIVE: Batman rumored to be in the new Batman movie?” to satisfy social media algorithms for sites that are 80 percent ads. But there are questions about who can afford to create content and who can afford to consume it. We appear to be moving towards a stratified internet for news, where a few huge success stories are supported by well-off readers, and then … everyone else.
That could leave us in a different sort of echo-chamber than the one we’re in already. Right now, social platforms capture us in algorithmic bubbles of personalized (and often polarizing) content. In the near future, those bubbles could be budgetary: a cap on the number of sites we can read on a regular basis, and on our exposure to diverse perspectives. Quoted in a 2018 AFP article, journalism professor Damian Radcliffe and digital media analyst Rebecca Lieb warned of a coming digital divide. Limited by financial realities, smaller publications may struggle for subscribers while not everyone will be able to afford access to high-quality news, they said. “There is a risk those audiences don’t get access to the range of information and journalism they need to stay informed in the current era,” said Radcliffe.
In 2020, that risk appears to be growing larger. Via email, Radcliffe noted that more paywalls have popped up since 2018, giving a typical consumer two likely scenarios. “The first is an increased likelihood that some people’s media diets will become narrower, relying on a smaller breadth of [paid] sources,” Radcliffe wrote. “The second scenario is that people who are priced out of news—or who do not see paying for news as a priority—will be pushed towards free news, some of which is more dubious in nature.” In other words, the news sites that do extensive reporting will be expensive, while the “news” sites that churn outrage and spin tales of secret pedophile cabals remain cheap; and the cost of the former could send unsuspecting consumers towards the latter. Paid news may come to resemble the pre-internet news landscape, but now every digital corner will have a modern John Birch Society hawking free stories about communists poisoning the water supply.
If the paywall sites are going to attract more consumers, and provide them safe harbor from the free-news vortex, then Radcliffe says they’ll need to make a better case for why it’s worth the money. That means letting people know the actual cost of producing journalism, and what’s at risk if you don’t financially support it. Otherwise, big publications will only serve a minority of the population, small publications will struggle to survive, and people who have grown accustomed to free news will continue to seek it out, even if it ends up not really being news at all.
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