We Need to Talk About Paying for Online Content

Is it time to get our wallets out?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The world of online media has been in flux for a number of years, but 2017 felt like a watershed. The Atlantic described 2017 as “a uniquely miserable year” and listed just a few of the companies facing problems:

“At Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faces a 30 percent cut. At The New York Times, advertising revenue is down $20 million annually after nine months. Oath, the offspring of Yahoo and AOL’s union, is shedding more than 500 positions as it strains to fit inside of its Verizon conglomerate. Meanwhile, almost every digital publisher seems to be struggling, selling, or soliciting…”

The piece goes on to reference the likes of Vice and Buzzfeed missing revenue targets. But there was more. Movie Pilot — a website I contributed to via the Creators.co platform — closed its doors, and then came the bombshell that Cracked was saying goodbye to virtually all of its super-talented writers, editors, video talent and podcasters. The site itself has continued on, but it has not been the same. Meanwhile, Mashable was bought at what was described as a “fire sale” price.

These trends have continued in the years since. Back in January 2019, big hitters Buzzfeed and HuffPost announced job losses into the thousands, which, as The Guardian noted:

“Followed sales or [job] cuts at Mic, Refinery29 and elsewhere.”

Often, we can only speculate as to the rationale behind these decisions, but as with most things in business, it’s reasonable to assume that it comes down to money.

The struggle for revenue is no real surprise. More and more websites are cropping up every day — often, it must be said, covering the same kind of content — fighting for less and less advertising revenue. Meanwhile, as readers, we revel in having content for free. We use ad blocking software, ignore requests for donations and grumble about paywalls. As a result, talented people, good people, lose their jobs, and we lose the content we love. So what now? Well, I’m looking at myself first and foremost.

I’m a hypocrite.

Yeah, I know it.

I’m one of those people with ad blocking software. I minimise pop-ups asking for a donation from Cracked, The Guardian, and more — sites that I visit every day. I moaned about The Onion’s paywall when they were trialing it (even though I was part of the reason they were).

And yeah, I have worked for free, too. I know I shouldn’t — not just for me, but because the willingness of writers to work for free undermines those who (quite reasonably) want — and need — paying for their work. My (non-writing-related) day job gives me the relative freedom to work for no pay on occasion, as a hobby. But I should figure out my worth, and the worth of others.

If I think my work is worth money, then I must realise that works both ways. If I want the content I love to remain available, if I want the creators I love and admire to keep producing work, then maybe I need to start paying for it.

I’m getting better. I pay for a membership here, I’ve contributed to The Guardian. But I know it’s not enough to make a real difference. I can rationalise it — I genuinely don’t have a lot of spare cash at the moment — but that’s doesn’t make it right.

The hard truth is we all need to start making changes in how we consume online content. After all, we pay for the cinema, we pay for meals out and drinks at bars and for plenty of other entertainment, so why not for online entertainment?

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David is an author and freelance writer. He has two short story collections available, and his non-fiction work has appeared on The Mighty, WhatCulture and Just Football, among others.

Navigating parenting with a disability and trying to write a novel. Email: davefox990@hotmail.com

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