I wish I could have called this article “On Writing” or something equally as zen, but alas, we live in an age of distributed content.
Essentially this means that you are likely reading this article because it appeared in one of your social feeds (Facebook, Twitter, Medium etc.), and my provocative title interrupted your mindless scrolling just long enough to bait you to click.
You mad? Not really. ’Tis the nature of the game these days. Headlines are the primary proxy we use to determine if something is worth our precious time, the welcome mat has been removed from most content publishers’ homepages, and in order to win on the web, publishers must win on the platforms where people are already hanging out.
As my friend Francis (via Kanyi) would say, the web operates according to a power rule. The average height of the world is 5'7", almost everyone is 5'5" and 5 people are 5 miles tall. In the content publishing world, the skyscrapers are Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed. Some edgy younger sibs like Vox, Vice, and Huffpo are making a run for the top, while a few platforms like Medium, Reddit, and LinkedIn are positioned well to fill the cracks.
Almost every independent content publisher is struggling to figure out monetization. As a 5 syllable buzzword, using “monetization” in a thought-piece on media feels like cooking with iceberg lettuce. But, lest we not forget that monetizing is what turns any media project into a media business.
The way most online pubs make money is though ads, which are predicated on page views. The more audiences converge onto these 5-mile-tall platforms, the less money independent publishers will make. Some will survive by throwing awesome events or creating cool branded content, but the majority are fighting an uphill battle. In addition to the monetization question, there are lots of other issues currently plaguing online publishing these days:
The filter bubble Algorithms determine what content we see based on past behavior, which separates us from content that could challenge or broaden our worldview.
Clickbait Headlines full of superlatives, numbers, and curiousity gaps are still the best way to garner clicks.
Disruptive UX Some pubs are trying to combat declining click-through-rates on display ads by adding more of them to each page.
Our attention spans Our attention spans are shrinking, which leads to more skimming and less in-depth engagement. We can’t read anymore.
“The attention filter helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore…the constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining attention on any one thing for very long — the curse of the information age.” -NYT 8/9/14
So what’s the remedy? How can we, the consumers, push back against clickbait, annonying pop-ups, and prohibitive paywalls, while at the same time funding quality journalism, increasing our depth of engagement, and exposing ourselves to content that we might not otherwise see?
Pay for an article, just one, and see how it feels.
- It’s a commitment device. In the same way that shelling out for a swanky gym membership incentivizes you to get off the couch, paying for journalism might be the commitment device you need to invest in the thorough reading of a piece.
- It feels good. Unlike a subscription, you know what you’re going to get by paying for one piece of content. Ideally, you’ll know who the money is going to as well. Directly supporting creators feels good.
- It puts you back in the drivers seat. We are passively served most the content we consume throughout the day. By proactively choosing what you want to read and support, you become more mindful of how media shapes your outlook and opinions.
There are many places on the web where you can pay pennies for high-quality journalism—Beacon, Blendle, Contributoria to name a few. Medium will likely have an option for publications to elicit reader support in the near future. (Check out Ev’s interview with Peter last week for more on this.) But, I want to be clear that this is not a plea to save independent publishing on the web. More than the writers, this is about helping us, the readers.
I didn’t pay for music before Spotify or movies before Netflix, but I’ve learned that investing in quality content on a well-designed platform is wildly fulfilling. Maybe, if we try putting our wallets where our eyes are, we will learn that paying for quality journalism can pay dividends too.