Why pay-what-you-want is the only realistic model for modern journalism

By Jimmy Wales

On the internet, advertising and quality journalism are often opposing forces.

When print was king, a company could target a group of consumers by advertising in a publication they thought those consumers would read. If you sold band merchandise, you bought space in Rolling Stone. If you wanted to target CFOs, you took out an ad in the Financial Times.

At first, ads on the internet worked in much the same way: banners acted like moving print ads, sitting alongside content that appealed to their target customer.

But over the last few years, the rise of programmatic advertising has altered this model radically.

The medium doesn’t matter as much as it used to, because the message is everywhere

Now, advertisers can target individual consumers no matter where they are. That’s why you see the same ads again and again despite being on different sites — they literally follow you around the web. Whether it’s shoes you already bought, a gift you briefly considered or — in my case — boats I wish I owned, the medium doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to, because the message is everywhere. Imagine walking down a high street and seeing the same damn product in every shop window. That’s what we have right now.

The result is a race to the bottom, because when the site doesn’t matter, the quality of the site doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is impressions. Eyeballs. Clicks.

Advertising is the reason we have clickbait. Create something everyone clicks on, true or not, and cream off that delicious ad revenue. What does it matter to you if someone goes away really believing that Obama was born in Kenya? And that they vote accordingly? You’ve retired to Hawaii (ironically).

It gets worse. Theoretically, publications keep editorial and advertising separate (church and state, as BuzzFeed calls it). But when you’ve got a client dropping major money on an ad campaign and you’re about to publish a negative review of their flagship product, you’re going to think twice. Stories get pulled, old criticisms are deleted, new stories are softened.

Quality publications resist that sort of thing, and good journalists hate it. But is the direction that an advertising-only business model pushes towards.

When advertising is the only revenue model, advertisers can and do influence editorial. You’d have to be a major optimist to think otherwise.

The WikiTribune way

Our business model depends fundamentally on reader support. What this means is that our incentive is to produce things that make you think “Wow, that was great. I want there to be more of this sort of thing in the world. I should chip in to help pay for this.”

However, we don’t want to only provide access to people who can afford to pay. We’re about democratising news, not holding it to ransom. So WikiTribune won’t have a paywall.

That’s not to say I think paywalls are a bad thing. In some cases, they make a lot of sense. For instance, financial newspapers are able to charge higher prices for paywalled access because they have information that is of personal practical benefit — I pay for the Wall Street Journal as an investment in my career. I don’t really mind if other people read it or not: in fact, I may hope that other people don’t read it, so that I have the advantage.

A paywall, rather than creating scarcity which raises the value, actually destroys the value

But for public interest journalism, I don’t want special access to information that others don’t have. I want everyone to be better informed. A paywall, rather than creating scarcity which raises the value, actually destroys the value. So we’re in the weird position of needing people to pay, so that we serve the interests of readers, when the interest of readers is to share the information as widely as possible. That’s why a voluntary “pay what you want” model is the only one that makes sense.

Is anyone really going to pay if they don’t have to?

A lot of people think not. There’s an understandable cynicism that people won’t just take what they want and leave the payment part to others.

I don’t think that’ll happen. More than 10,000 people supported our initial crowdfunder, and many of them are still giving monthly even though there’s nothing to show for it yet. They believe in us, they believe in the product, and above all they believe in the truth.

In return, we believe in them. We think that if we’re doing something good, enough people will come forward to help us do it: whether that’s by contributing their money, their time, or whatever they can.

Will it work? We’ll see. But I won’t promise not to say “I told you so.”