The Death of the Paperboy

The Internet’s Shift from Push to Pull Content Delivery

Like many other kids growing up in the 1980s, one of my first jobs was as a paperboy, delivering the local news to my neighbors. It was a simple, honest job, for a simpler time.

Where is the paperboy today? Nowhere to be seen. It was a long time in the coming — and it happened slowly enough you could be forgiven for not noticing it — nonetheless, the Age of the Paperboy has well and truly ended.

The implications of this shift for content publishers are considerable — their entire business model has been turned on its head. And yet many seem not to even realize this. The sad truth is that — as a whole — the publishing industry is still reveling in its past glory, that golden age when the news was delivered by hand. The paperboy would come each morning to your house and leave a rolled-up newspaper on your doorstep for you to find. Publishers had, in effect, a captive audience, reliant on having the news brought to them — and once someone became a subscriber to that paper, they usually remained one forever.

Today, of course, we consume our content online, and we have the world at our fingertips, thanks to the digital “show and tell” that is the Internet today. But publishers still think in terms of consumer loyalty and prioritize being the only location a consumer will come to for content. We have to be realistic — does any publisher really think a consumer cares about buying content just on their one site? With all the content available on so many thousands of sites across the web, why would anyone in their right mind want to subscribe to them all in order to get their news and entertainment?

The short answer is, they don’t. And publishers need to adapt in order to survive, embracing a variety of strategies and models of how to serve their audience.

Push vs. Pull

The model of how content is consumed has flipped, moving from a ‘push’ model to what can now be considered ‘pull.’

The era of the paperboy, of course, was emblematic of the ‘push’ model — the news was delivered to you. You had no choice in what you were given by that publication but, on the other hand, you also didn’t have to go out to look for it. Instead, the news was ‘pushed’ to you. In the Push age, publishers behaved in a one particular way, feeding users whatever they, the publisher, wanted — news, sports, weather, finance, etc. They weren’t wrong, it was just the only way to do it.

Now things have changed — the Internet has turned everything to ‘pull.’

Where previously we were given something, now we are going online and looking for content ourselves — the stories we like, the news we want to hear, the writers we prefer. And this dramatically changes the perspective. You can’t go to a newsstand, for example, and ask for page three of The New York Times, but with the pull model that’s exactly what you can do — jumping directly to the section you want and ‘pulling’ whatever content you want.

Why is this so different? It all boils down to the fact that you are now asking for something specific and, in return, you expect to get something specific back. By its very nature the Internet is a show and tell medium — or to be more accurate, point and tell. It’s like a child asking for ice-cream. Kids are very specific: they say “I want ice cream” — a general statement — but they point at something very specific and make their request clear in that way, regardless of their age. As a parent — or ice-cream vendor — you have to pick what they are showing you. But If you give them chocolate when they want strawberry, you are going to experience a whole range of negative human emotions right then and there!

The pull principle of the Internet works in exactly the same way. People now expect to see what they ask for, when they ask for it. So, to continue the ice cream analogy, if I want to read something about strawberries, anything else a publisher shows me is going to make me disappointed and ultimately turn me away. You could say, today’s paperboy is one click away and delivers instantly, to wherever you are, but you expect him only to deliver what you asked for.

Our Habits Have Changed

The huge volume of content available on the Internet is in part responsible for this shift, but our consumption habits have changed as well. Let’s return to the Age of the Paperboy.

It’s the weekend, Sunday morning perhaps. You’re playing in the house, or maybe watching cartoons on TV. Your parents, meanwhile, have without thinking blocked out time to consume content. Your father is reading the Sunday paper from front to back; your mother is listening to the radio while she’s in the kitchen. It may be something of a cliched picture, but it’s one that was copied in households all around the world.

How about today? Over the course of the day, you shuttle between Google Docs and Google Mail. You check Twitter or Instagram occasionally, and if you’re like the 85% of American adults who consume news on their phones, you may come across an interesting article that you’ll read. You go home, you watch something on Netflix, then you go to bed.

That’s the daily habit of a 21st-century consumer. And it means our real-world pattern of consumption no longer fits within the traditional publishing model. The average duration of a visit to a website today is less than two minutes. Despite this, subscriptions — and their punitive offspring paywalls — appear to continue to represent a publisher’s instinctive strategy for generating revenue.

Different Models

Let’s take a minute to clear up a common misconception: although people seem to use the terms interchangeably these days, subscriptions and paywalls are not the same thing.

A subscription is the sign of my willingness as a loyal reader to consume — at a flat rate — something I really like or really want. A paywall, in contrast, amounts to a user-hostile way to punish users who actually qualify as customers while simultaneously giving freebies to people who only visit a site occasionally. If you visit infrequently, then those couple of articles that you can read a month for free are all you want, but if you qualify as a potential regular reader, you find yourself forced into accepting a subscription model or not being allowed to access the content you prefer. It’s a hostile way to ask for money, when you come to think of it. And it is a missed chance to establish value and nurture value, intensifying a relationship with the user and, in the end, recruiting new subscribers.

So why are we talking about these two terms? Because they continue to represent the publisher’s instinctive strategy for generating revenue. Can people get the same content elsewhere? Then make sure you get whatever money you can from them while they’re with you! People don’t want advertisements? Limit the content they can see for free or offer a paid, ad-free version of your content!

The idea that the only way to consume content is through a subscription is horribly outdated. Everyone loves going to a restaurant, but no one would want a restaurant subscription, because we appreciate the variety and we want to choose the food we want. In the eyes of consumers, subscriptions represent a fixed monthly cost and, in this day and age, if we needed to subscribe to every single content source that we access in the average month, we would be spending hundreds of dollars every 30 days. Other than spending $10.99 on Netflix, $10 for Spotify and maybe $15 for the New York Times, Washington Post or their equivalent — and maybe some local newspaper — how many other subscriptions can you really expect someone to commit to, month-in and month-out?

Publishers need to focus on a business model that is user-centric, making the consumer of content a bigger priority than the publisher.The death of the paperboy wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He did a great job in his time, but the digital show and tell has now taken over. With every click of a button users show to us what they want, and with every further click they show us how they want it.

The challenge is that user-centricity needs to be genuine. A user-centric approach which you don’t live and breathe is worthless — just like a beautiful piece of jewelry that no one sees. User-centricity isn’t about you telling the user how cool you are, but rather it is all about the user perceiving you as someone who is delighted to serve them. Put another way, being user centric means that you have accepted that you are no longer in control of the user. Instead, you need to respect their time, their privacy and their needs.

Sidebar: It’s Not Just Traditional Publishers Either — Facebook Feeds while Google Finds

Outside of traditional publishers, we consume the majority of our content through one of two channels — Facebook or Google. Facebook is, of course, a giant but it is struggling to hide what is — to me — their biggest problem: the timeline. As we all know, the timeline shows you one article after another, and you move from one story to the next. Originally it is what made Facebook such a big hit, because it was limited to our friends and to social interaction only. For many, Facebook is good for wasting time and checking on our friends posting only the top 0.01% moments of their lives. But the timeline fails at anything else — and that’s where Google excels.

You see, while Facebook feeds you one thing after another, Google is a supermarket: you can find everything on its shelves at one time. You ask for what you need, pick it up and walk home. Put another way, Google is Amazon for content, and it doesn’t discriminate. Because Google essentially places information on shelves where customers can find it, users have the freedom of choice, and so do the content providers when they placing their products there. In contrast, Facebook’s timeline feeds you one thing at the time, organizing information like ducks in a row, one after another. The timeline is killing users’ freedom of choice and it makes them blind to what is out there — as long as they remain happy to be fed by Facebook’s algorithm.

Post-Cambridge Analytica (every other scandal out there) people are waking up a bit more, demanding a choice and demanding not to be patronized. Through its timeline, Facebook is proactively choosing what you see, whereas with Google you are the one making the choice. If that sounds familiar, it is — Facebook has embraced the digital ‘push’ principle — pushing content in front of you that you have to say no to. Google, on the other hand is the embodiment of the ‘pull’ principle and is, consequently, more user-centric because it requires you to voice what you want before it presents results.

From my perspective, Facebook’s doing a great job at developing non-linear business models, like Instagram, and WhatsApp. They are the future of Facebook and are by contrast to the timeline — much more user centric.

Focusing on Choice

So what do publishers, and the industry as a whole, need to do? There is no option but to give the freedom to choose to consumers because they expect it.

It is time to put convenience at the center and allow truly frictionless access to content. Subscriptions still seem to be the primary model of choice, but as we have seen, that doesn’t really constitute choice at all. True choice is offering content in models that accurately reflect the user’s consumption behavior. Someone who occasionally browses a site won’t subscribe, no matter what the publisher does, but they may be inclined to buy a few articles if it is an effortless process. More frequent users may be inclined to buy a day, a week or a month of access if the content entices them. And the most loyal users are still likely to opt for subscriptions, as they don’t want to be bothered with frequent interactions with the publisher.

Remember the tab at your local bar? How about having a tab for the digital age — tally up your content consumption and pay later. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to read one article without any paywall friction, or purchase a week pass to a journal that you like while on holidays, or even watch just one movie on Amazon Prime this month because you’re too busy to watch more? And wouldn’t it be great if you could simply look at your phone or place your thumb on a sensor to pay your tab once it hits $5?

We’re already starting to see these solutions available to publishers today. My own company, LaterPay, has pioneered the digital-tab approach and others have similarly recognized the need for a change. But these aren’t the only options available to publishers. As an alternative to subscriptions, what about instead taking a membership-model approach, where members are offered access to special events of exclusive content of some kind? Publications can also focus more on utilizing social media, creating YouTube videos that serve as previews of content that’s been created and engaging with readers in the comments sections of articles as ways to connect with their audiences.

In all of these cases, the point to be made is that it’s time for user-centric models that allow readers to consume content seamlessly, in a manner they want to consume it. There is a whole universe living between ads and subscriptions. Let’s focus on servicing that space for a change.