Paywalls for online news


Has anyone else noticed how many paywalls and membership communities are cropping up for news? It used to be just to access content and now some outlets are creating MUCH HIGHER QUALITY content + conference calls with journalists etc for paying members. While I can understand the need to monetize digitally, it bothers me


If I have to decide between a world of click-bait journalism to attract eyeballs for advertising revenue and monthly subscriptions to high-quality curated content, I’ll willingly choose the latter. With competition from social media platforms (where most people get news now), that’s the best business model that we’ve come with so far.

I recommend Ben Thompson’ writing on this: Stratechery is one of 3 content publications I pay for. Worth every cent.



I don’t find it unreasonable although I find it annoying.

News organizations are companies at the end of the day, and they optimize for revenue. With the business models of today, the digital subscription model (ie. a paid newsletter) is the best option available. Cuz ads are more annoying than $5-8/month for most people (…who live in industrialized countries). People prefer optionality, being able to choose and switch and opt in and out, so going from an annual fee to a monthly fee is no big deal for me. Especially because I’m so used to it with Netflix and Spotify.

How crypto could change this
The beauty of crypto is that it’s perfect for supporting “free” high-quality journalism through micropayments. Just like we saw it go from an annual fee --> subscription model, I’m expecting to see it go from subscription model --> automated micropayments (don’t even have to think about). Crypto pioneer, Nick Szabo, has talked about “mental transaction costs” of these micropayments. I highly recommend anyone interested in crypto to read it. (tangent: Part of the reason why I love this space is all the cool thought experiments that people have thought and written about already. Naval Ravikant and Vitalik Buterin also have written some amazing articles.)


I totally agree with you. I actually do pay for a few media outlets. But I think you’re making a good point in your response in revealing that I haven’t properly framed my concern.

You and I are willing and able to pay. What about the people who can’t afford to? There’s a limit to the number of subscriptions one can buy unless one is very wealthy. I don’t like the idea that pay/subscription models are trending more and more to higher-price plans. I used to work in the media, so I know that it’s only in recent years that a paywall has even become a sustainable revenue stream. I’ll have to find the data, but I think it was only in the last few years that the New York Times’ paywall was bringing in a significant amount of revenue from its paywall.

How is an entity like TruStory going to continue proving claims if – hypothetically speaking – in 10 years every media outlet with quality journalism and reporting is siloed off into paid content? And even if TruStory finds a workaround – say it pays to access all these sites – do people who aren’t paying for it just have to take our word for it?

I’m really curious how this will all play out!


I can totally support why new organizations are going the paid route…I’m concerned with how these models affect access for everyone, everywhere, not just the people who can afford to pay for these new tiers of content.

Great point on how crypto is changing this! I’m going to take a look at the Szabo piece you mentioned on micropayments.


Ah I see where you’re coming from.

Re: access

Yeah, this sucks. Maybe publications like NYT drive even more subscribers and use that profit to open up more of the content for free? But that’s still hiding the good stuff. Maybe crypto can help deliver a different incentive model as Priyatham notes? Def aligned with your concern here.

Re: impact on TruStory

I agree that more media outlets will move long-form, highly-curated content behind a paywall, but I expect the information TruStory relies on to remain publically accessible. We’re talking public databases, ledgers, census data, economic, etc. You can’t hide core facts from citizens. I forgot to mention this earlier but Axios has been successful with a news feed native advertising model. No subscription required and currently my favorite news source w/ their focus on brevity.


Great point in that distinction. As long as we know where to find that hard data and public info, the paywall effect will/can be limited.

Making a note to check out Axios. I just joined Quartz’s membership program – I’ll be interested to see the depth of their member content and conference calls.


I think of Steemit. It seems great on the surface but I think about how many pages I view and how many comments I make on Social and Blog/Forum sites like this one. If I had to pay for everyone, even small change, I would not post at all. I know this could be a good thing!
Seriously, how much would this stifle things? I know there is also the flip side if you are the one creating content thus you make money and pay that forward.
How many actually create content or have the time? I would hate getting to a point where I have to pay for everything I do on the internet. I see this going in that direction. People are greedy.


I just checked out Steemit. Interesting you brought it up and its potential lack of sustainability…I see it just laid off 70% of its staff, per Coindesk.

Its founder said: “While we were building out our team over the last many months we have been relying on projections of basically a higher bottom for the market and since that’s no longer there, we’ve been forced to lay off more than 70 percent of our organization and begin a restructuring.”

Not directly related to the paywall convo, but it seems pretty short term to be relying on the overall crypto market! 70 PERCENT layoffs! Then again, Coindesk notes that there’s no info on what 70 percent means. Could be 7 out of 10 for all we know.

Interesting question you raise with “How many actually create content or have the time?” and how that may potentially affect the paid news marketplace.


I think part of the problem with Steemit is one of the founders. Dan Larimer seems to like to just start projects and not to really follow through.


FWIW, I second the accolade for Stratechery.


@Pam what do you think of this thread? Do you think there’s a profitable model for media without paywalls?


A super interesting thread, thanks for sharing!

There are two things that stand out to me as potentially profitable models in the very long-term:
1 - a news aggregator - a Netflix or Spotify for news, as some of the commenters pointed out. Flipboard has been one such aggregator/social network on the market for 8+ years, and they reached 145 million users as of August 2018. But the same article says that although there are 4000 publishers on board, Flipboard accounts for less than 2 percent of traffic for publishers.
For this to work, people have to rely less on big social media channels for news.

So there’s potential in this model, but then you consider what’s happening with Netflix: companies like Disney are starting their own streaming services and taking content off Netflix. I think Netflix’s prominence in 5-10 years will be a good indicator of what’s possible for journalism, but will be more difficult for journalism to achieve.

2 - Paid models for a smaller subset of readers. Increasingly I keep seeing newsletters and outlets offering paid membership plans that aren’t traditional paywalls - members get access to exclusive content, conference calls with journalists, members-only communities, etc. Some of these models are $150 - $250 per year. It would have to massively scale to offset all the production of free content for the rest of the user base, but it’s possible.

Both of these models rely on super high-quality journalism/content to have a chance at being profitable. And our collective dissatisfaction with the big social networks, loss of privacy, etc will have to reach a sufficient tipping point – ample opportunity for crypto networks to provide the privacy and quality :slight_smile:

I wanna dig into more numbers as well…how well online advertising is doing (or not), how prevalent these member models are, and what people are paying for content now vs 10 years ago

Lots of good info to unpack in this NiemanLab roundup of predictions for journalism in 2019