The Era of the Eclectic Internet

Media that were free or easily accessible — including news sites, podcasts, TV shows and games — rushed to get behind the payments walls during the pandemic.

why does it matter: This accelerating trend is carving the internet into many niche audiences, balkanizing our collective food systems.

  • Just as cable introduced a paid layer for television in the 1980s, the paid Internet layer began to take shape 40 years later.

News Leadership: New data from Piano, a company that specializes in publisher subscriptions, finds that the news publisher’s paywall system took off in 2002 and has seen steady gains since then.

  • According to Piano SVP Michael Silberman, the rate at which users saw a paid offer or were asked to pay for content on a news site doubled during COVID.
  • The announced subscription numbers confirm this trend. For the first time last year, newspapers made more money from subscriptions than from advertising, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Big Picture: Users engage with paywalls across a range of media, and discover that they now have to pay for content that was previously free.

  • In addition to news sites, readers must also pay to read individual writers who leave established news organizations for independent writing platforms such as Substack, Ghost, and Twitter’s Revue.
  • A cable subscription won’t let you access most of your favorite shows anymore – you’ll need to ditch a few different streaming services.
    • Since March 2020, the number of consumers who said they’d be willing to pay for five or more streaming services rose from 9% to 16%, according to data from Magid’s latest video entertainment study. Few people said they would be willing to spend money on just one service.

Even podcasts, the most open and freely available media via RSS feeds, are moving behind paywalls.

  • Both Apple and Spotify have added podcast features to subscription this year, competing with Wondery, which was recently bought by Amazon and Luminary.
  • Spotify has spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying for the exclusive rights to a number of podcasts, including Alex Cooper’s “Call Her Daddy,” Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Expert,” and “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

cloud games, OnlyFans adult entertainment platform, even car features like heated seats – all depend on the subscription model.

be clever: There is no clear consensus among experts as to whether this fragmentation is good or bad for society.

  • Jessica Lessin, CEO and founder of The Information, a high-quality subscription news service.
  • “Without subscription forms, huge swaths of important public information simply wouldn’t be produced.”

Others argue polarization It will accelerate as like-minded consumers pay to read their favorite book and it will be difficult for content to escape from this ecosystem.

  • “It’s clear that high-quality mainstream media — whose audience tends to be liberal — is definitely moving more and more toward a paywall, especially at the national level,” says Rodney Benson, chair of New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Yes, but: All things free is still very popular on the internet. Many paywall-protected products offer some free parts. And online advertising, which supports free services, shows no sign of stopping its growth.

Bottom line: Creating a paid internet tier may never crowd out free alternatives, but it does threaten to leave the community with fewer common points of reference.