My proposed solution for the paywall problem

While reading another discussion on this forum about paywalls and why readers dislike them, a solution popped into my head. Maybe everybody’s already thought of it, or they’ll think it’s bad, I’m here to find out.

The problem I have and see:

I like reading bicycling stories. I don’t like ads. I don’t like paywalls. I don’t like deceptive articles with ads hidden inside. And I don’t like paying anything at all, let alone paying for dozens of different subscriptions. Yet, I understand that the journalists need an incentive. They’re like me, they need to eat, pay rent, buy bikes, and enjoy their life. I get value from their content, so they deserve to be compensated, but the value I get doesn’t match what everyone else gets. And where I get value from doesn’t match where others derive a story’s value.

For example, if I read one article a day, should I pay the same as someone who reads three? Or if I only read tech stories with affiliate links and let’s just say, for example, they don’t take long to write (I have no idea in honesty), then should I pay the same as someone who loves to read racing stories which happen to have no affiliate links and take weeks to write? Or, if I derive a ton of value in the content/words while another person really values the UI/images/presentation of the story on the website, then should we pay the same? And finally, for the journalists, instead of getting paid a lump sum/hourly/yearly rate, and giving ownership of their content to their company, wouldn’t it be better if they owned their content and got paid per reading, no matter where or when that read occurred. Then they’d be able to keep getting paid years after they’ve written an article (if it stayed relevant) or even after they’ve changed companies.

My proposed solution:

I propose that journalists own their own writing and disentangle it from their company. Store the most essential value, the words, on a public, permissionless, distributed ledger/database/spreadsheet maintained across many decentralized computers. This decentralized database would keep a record of all the licensing agreements, royalties, and any changes to the content (preventing misinformation via tampering). If a media aggregator like CT wanted to license the articles and display them on their website, then CT could pay the journalist and be listed as an “official distributor” of their content. The value CT provides (for me at least) is a nice UI, community, and aggregation of the best stories. Doing this costs CT money so they would need a paywall. However, and this is key, if I wanted to then I have the option to view these articles for free from somebody who simply stole the digital work and posted it on their website. The downsides may be: a crummier interface, maybe some popup ads, and maybe the words were changed and I’m reading words that didn’t come from the journalist. I would know this because I could check on the distributed database to see if my source is listed as a permissioned distributor.

The benefits:

Readers pay for the exact value they get. Instead of having CyclingTips content only on CyclingTips. There could be all of the racing stories on one website and all the tech stories on another website. Different websites get to choose what they want to aggregate, license, present, and sell. Readers get to choose the websites that provide them value in the areas they care about. Journalists get to own, profit from, and take their work with them between different companies and across many years. Content can be easily checked to see if it has been tampered with or modified by simply comparing it to the source fundamental truth and consensus - the decentralized ledger.

Final words

If you know where my solution is inspired from, then that’s awesome, but I tried not to use any buzzwords that take away from the value proposition. Please share your thoughts if you have any.

I live where it’s warm so I almost never use the heater in my car, but I can’t buy a car without a heater. I want a discount.

I only watch about 5 channels on my television even though there are hundreds available, and I only watch about 5 hours a week, even though there are thousands of hours available. I want a discount.

I only buy items from the fresh and bakery sections of my grocery, which means I only use a subset of the store, so I want a discount since I shouldn’t pay for the entire store.

My daughter only goes to 7 classes a day even though the school has 100 or more classrooms, I want a 93% discount on my taxes.

I only use certain features on my mobile phone even though it can do dozens of things. I want a discount on the phone.

I could do this forever, but it’s just not how the world works.

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Here’s the thing - I don’t see a problem.

Journalists/media organisations produce a product, just like Ford, Apple, Trek, etc. They place a price on that product depending on their costs, consumer demand, other streams of income and so on.

It is up to the consumer to judge whether or not they like that product sufficiently to pay the price that is asked for it. If they like certain aspects but not others, they may decide to buy it, or not; perhaps to buy it occasionally - like they might a printed magazine - if (to continue the analogy) something on the virtual ‘cover’ catches their eye and seems interesting.

No one is being forced to purchase anything, and no one is seeking to exploit a temporary spike in demand or shortage in supply (i.e. profiteering).

There is no ‘problem’ here and the ‘solution’ is self-evident: if you don’t value the product, don’t like the company, or judge there are better uses for your money - decisions we all make, consciously or subconsciously, dozens of times a day - then don’t buy it; end of story.

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I love thinking outside the box for a problem that hasn’t effectively been solved, but I think your solution is missing two key points:

  1. Sites like CyclingTips offer more than just distribution of content. They also offer support to journalists in the form of editors, collaboration, access to photographers, event access, the clout of a brand name, etc. A fully freelance world would still require those things, and I’m not sure they’d be distributed efficiently. It might result in a group of journalists banding together to pool resources and bring clout to their names (so essentially you’d just be separating distribution from manufacturing by breaking off the website part).

  2. Journalists would be incentivized strongly to write articles that get the most eyeballs. We have sites like that already (blogs, Buzzfeed, etc.) and for me at least, there’s a lot of value in a site that’s willing to pay journalists to write deeper pieces. There are plenty of sites out there that provide content 100% free, but some of the skewed incentives that you mention in your original post come into play (sponcon, clickbait, too many ads). The long-form articles can’t seem to be effectively be financed by ads and sponcon alone, so that ends up bringing everyone down to the same level. For instance, I enjoy BikeRumor, but they’re not bringing the same value as Cyclingtips.

Interested in other thoughts!

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All I will say is:

$0.75/week for the best (IMO) cycling coverage going around.

Are we really that bloody stingy that this is an issue?

I’d love to go into a lot of places and say “nah, your services are only worth a buck a week”.

Your time concocting some Napster type thing where no one will pay anything for content probably wasted more of your time than the cost of a subscription to CT.

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It is remarkable how consumer expectations for media shifted between c.2000 and c.2018, when it became the norm to expect to access journalism, articles, and often music and video without paying for it. While I don’t envy the industry’s current task of persuading customers that it is that recent model that is/was the aberration, and that they need to pay for content that isn’t advertorial or clickbait, I would suggest that most of us who care about good, independent journalism in all fields should try to support the model where we can.

I am happy to pay for CT and the online edition of 1 UK newspaper. The combined monthly cost is roughly equivalent to a large coffee and a sandwich. For 5-15 minutes entertainment and information a day, from sources I largely trust and whose style I like, I don’t see that as bad value. Others may disagree, and they’re welcome to - it’s their money. But there is no ‘problem’.

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You say there’s a problem with paywalls. I don’t see it like that, there is no problem with them.
The problem is with us, the reader, who has been used to reading articles on the internet for free. We need to realise that needs to change. If a website has good journos/writers and they write about what I am interested in I will pay for that access. It’s just the same as buying magazines, but without having something physical to hold and read.

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It’s funny because the people who get all triggered by paywalls are often also the first people to also moan about sponsored content or online adverts.

They have a very warped sense of entitlement.

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as already said, back in the day it was very normal to pay the equivalent of 5-8$ for your printed monthly edition of Velonews, Velo or Bicisport.
Very fair to do the same now in digital world.
My perspective is that the cycling magazines also suffer from a sort of self-inflicted damage by having for years 100% toed the line of their paying advertisers to publish product reviews and product launches which were appearing like advertorials, etc… following the release of new products 100% in line with the marketing directives of the industry: eg, the brand XYZ releases a new groupset and on the very same day, all the publications will come out with “first ride impression” articles because that’s the deal with the marketers. Honestly, if I got 10 articles of the same product in 10 different magazines in the very same day, then IMO it brings an halo of “magazines=PR machines from the brands” and who would like to pay for advertisement ?

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The trouble is, the only way writers will get hold of items before they are launched is to toe the line with the manufacturers. It’s called not biting the hand that feeds you.

Having a review of a product out the same day as it’s launched will mean many clicks for a website. I bet they’re some of the most read articles out there in the cycling media.
As long as the cycling press have to continue relying on money from advertising and sponsored content, this will continue being the case.

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What you propose isn’t too far off of the substack model, really. Writers head off and do their own thing. It’s an interesting idea and pieces of it are being used in various ways across media right now.

There are some problems though. Substack-type models add risk for the writer. And if writers were to stay inside a larger org like CT, but get paid per reader or per view, the incentive is actually to produce WORSE content. Clickbait. That’s happened elsewhere.

It can work, for sure. But writers lose the benefits of scale, they stop getting paid when they take a holiday, they lose the benefits of a sales and ad-ops team (which still pays the majority of our bills, even with the paywall), they lose lots of things. Plus I don’t think the audience would like the result.

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There are a few examples that buck this trend (in terms of impartiality rather than early access) , DC Rainmaker being an obvious one. As far as I’m aware, until quite recently he bought stuff with his own money, but it was the detail, rigour and honesty of his reviews that drove people to his content, and eventually made him sufficiently influential that the players in his niche sort of had to play ball.

Having said that, while there is a market for that kind of stuff, I agree it’s currently fairly small potatoes - because most people won’t pay a subscription to Joe Whoever’s blog or website and/or because negative YouTube vids quickly generate lawyers’ letters (just ask Hambini). And larger sites that consistently bash stuff don’t get the ad dollars. On the other side, though, I think many consumers are now more savvy, and are increasingly sceptical about sites/outlets that never give anything less than 7/10. It’s a hard circle to square.

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Some good points made there. Another independent source of info is Bicycle Rolling Resistance, Jarno is still buying his tyres.

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If only someone had thought about this in the 1930s and got the Nobel Prize for Economics in the 90s… The Nature of the Firm - Wikipedia

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Yup. I’ve often wondered if that model would fly with bikes, but I doubt the economics would work (even assuming the bikes were sold at the end of the test period for - let’s guesstimate - 75% of the purchase price).

Best reviews on the internet; technical, detailed, and honest.

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I was hoping the “problem” you had a solution to was people posting complaints about the paywall.

The idea that CyclingTips making money for the content we derive value from is a “problem” is so frustrating to me, as a former freelance writer and photographer.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get paid for that work? Or how many times I’ve been offered “exposure” in exchange for my photos or writing? As if enough people will see it and then someone will want to pay me for it? No, just more people who want to enjoy my work without paying for it.

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But something something advertising something something paid content something something

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I’m a paid member and was before the paywall, so don’t take this as a complaint from me, but I think what a lot of people are ignoring is that the “complainers” are saying, “you did just fine without me paying before, but as soon as you were purchased by Outside you implemented a paywall”. Now…I’m guessing these people still wouldn’t pay for it even if Outside hadn’t bought them, but it’s not simply an “I won’t pay” argument, there’s the buyout and subsequent implementation that makes the “complainers” skeptical of the explanation and motivation and that keeps getting ignored in the “stop being cheap and pay them for their work” replies.

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I came here to make the exact Substack comment Caley makes above. May make sense for writers with a following but hard to establish an audience that way.

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