2
0
1
9

Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

“The attention economy that has been driving the media industry for much of the past decade may be about to give way to a more old-fashioned economy, in which the scarcest resource is once again people’s money, not their time.”

More and more U.S. media outlets are putting up paywalls, charging either for all their content (Wired, Bloomberg, New York) or for a premium slice of it (Quartz, The Atlantic, Medium, Business Insider, BuzzFeed News). It’s fair to guess the average person won’t subscribe to more than one or two of them, especially since a recession in the U.S. is expected within the next couple of years.

We may, then, be on the verge of a tipping point. The attention economy that has been driving the media industry for much of the past decade — fueling everything from BuzzFeed and its imitators to the digital strategies of traditional publishers — may be about to give way to a more old-fashioned economy, in which the scarcest resource is once again people’s money, not their time.

In some ways, this is a good thing. The attention economy is toxic. It’s responsible for garbage content, fake news, and the excessive power of the giant social-media platforms. Competing for money forces media to think about how to give their users long-term value instead of short-term gratification — about how to serve communities instead of serving up crap. Some clickbait farms will close (if they haven’t already). We’ll see interesting new business models and more real engagement with users.

But things might not look so rosy a couple of years down the line.

Two obvious big things are different from the last time the media industry was primarily a money economy, back when print was still dominant. Advertising revenue has collapsed, so it can no longer subsidize subscriptions as it once did. And everything is digital, so many more media outlets are now competing in the same arena.

This means the competition for those subscription dollars will be much more intense. Local news outlets, already on life support, will find it especially hard to compete with national ones. National outlets will find that it pays more to serve certain communities well rather than try for the widest audience; this will make them more selective about what they cover and possibly cut out some journalism that’s important to smaller or poorer groups.

In this money economy, an “iTunes for news” (offering paywalled content from a range of publishers for a few cents per story, like Blendle), or a “Netflix/Spotify for news” (all-you-can-eat for a monthly flat fee) might finally get traction in the U.S. For years, such bundling models have struggled to take off because they don’t add enough revenue for most publishers to bother with them. As competition for subscribers heats up, publishers may start to see bundling platforms as a good way to reach the customers who won’t shell out for a full subscription. For users, meanwhile, they’ll provide access to more outlets without paying full price for each one.

However, these iTunes- or Netflix-style platforms aren’t likely to be good for publishers. On them, media outlets won’t be competing with one another to offer the best subscription package. Instead, their individual stories will battle it out for the audience’s favor in gladiatorial combat similar to that in which songs compete on iTunes or movies and shows compete on Netflix — or, for that matter, everything competes on the non-paywalled internet.

In other words, just when publishers have started to undo the atomization of content that the internet created, these platforms will atomize it once again. That will undermine the publishers’ efforts to build new business models around sustainable relationships with communities of people. And it will push down the price of content, just as the internet’s consolidated ad markets pushed down the price of advertising.

Regardless of whether this sort of bundling becomes popular, the trend towards paywalls will be great for media consumers — or at least for some of them. They’ll be getting less clickbait-y drivel and, in exchange for modest sums of money, more content produced with their actual needs in mind.

However, people from whom it’s hard to make money — especially local communities and marginalized groups — might lose out. The worst of the clickfarms and the fake news mills won’t go away; in fact, they’ll thrive, because they’ll have less competition in the cutthroat programmatic advertising market after the slightly less terrible outlets die off. And for the higher-quality media, it will — as always — be an interesting time, but not an easier one. Paywalls don’t solve the problem of survival; they just change it.

Gideon Lichfield is editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review.

Annie Rudd   A more intimate aesthetic of politics — on Insta

Angilee Shah   The year news orgs say “yes” to real leaders

Taylor Lorenz   Personal branding is more powerful than ever

Pablo Boczkowski   Reimagining the media for post-institutional times

Francesco Marconi   The year of iterative journalism

Jim Friedlich   Meet Citizen Kane 2.0

Matt Karolian   Publishers come to terms with being Facebook’s enablers

Renan Borelli   Developing loyalty means developing your talent

Millie Tran   There is no magic — you’ve got this

Jonathan Stray   More algorithmic accountability reporting, and a lot of it will be meh

Kainaz Amaria   We consider who’s behind the camera

Cherian George   Fake news wins in Asia

Dheerja Kaur   A focus on problems, not platforms

Brian Moritz   The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit

Tshepo Tshabalala   Ahead of African elections, unlock partnerships with fact-checkers

Elizabeth Dunbar   Local reporters reflect on what’s not important

An Xiao Mina   The death of consensus, not the death of truth

Michael Rain   The year of the culturally relevant curator

Rebecca Lee Sanchez   We are all actors in the running rampant of political theater

Matthew Pressman   The battle over objectivity intensifies

Rachel Davis Mersey   Local news goes minimalist

Craig Newmark   The end of “loudspeakers for liars”

Rachel Glickhouse   Newsrooms will prioritize audience needs

Mike Rispoli and Craig Aaron   Government funds local news — and that’s a good thing

Candis Callison   Learn from Indigenous journalists on covering climate change

Elizabeth Jensen   Going where the Acela can’t take you

Jennifer Dargan   You don’t build diversity through one-off training sessions

Lauren Katz   Community becomes a core newsroom value

John Saroff   The pivot to reader revenue’s unintended consequences

Mandy Velez   Putting the social back in social media

Heba Aly   The rise of international nonprofit news

Umbreen Bhatti   The story doesn’t end for the people we quote

Joel Konopo   Influencers become the new liberated power in Africa

M. Scott Havens   Time to swing for the fences

Marie Shanahan   Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

Cindy Royal   For journalism curriculum to change, its faculty needs disruption

Rodney Gibbs   A bright — and young — year for audio

Emma Carew Grovum   The year of the loyal reader

LaToya Drake   Listen up: New stories, new storytellers

Jenée Desmond-Harris   It finally sinks in that some people aren’t white

Adam Thomas   In Europe, foundations invest in news

Matt Skibinski   Quality and reliability are the new currencies for publishers

Tim Carmody   Unlocking the commons

Carolina Guerrero   Spanish-language audio blows up

John Biewen   Podcasts keep getting better

Peter Bale   Venture capital runs out of patience

Eric Nuzum   The year of the DIY podcast network

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   A long, slow slog, with no one coming to the rescue

Simon Rogers   Data journalism becomes a global field

Gabriel Snyder   Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

Stefanie Murray   Local news wakes up and starts collaborating

Axie Navas   The traffic hunt, CMS battle, and magazine identity crises loom

Ariel Zirulnick   Participation gets professional

Cristi Hegranes   A year to invest in the security of local journalists

Mandy Jenkins   Fight the urge to run away from social media

Peter Cunliffe-Jones   The focus of misinformation debates shifts south

james Wahutu   Think 2018 was bad? Wait until you see 2019

Johannes Klingebiel   We all grow hooves

Justin Kosslyn   Text hits a tipping point

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Readers are only getting started

Alexis Lloyd & Matt Boggie   The year product leads media

Kristen Muller   Local news fails — in a good way

Andrew Ramsammy   The great re-pivot to audio

Jack Riley   Facebook refugees, from ad revenue to news habits

Salem Solomon   Correcting our corrections

Errin Haines Whack   Say it with me: Racism

Moreno Cruz Osório   Damaged credibility and a new threat in Brazil

Mario García   The rise of content “pilots”

Robert Hernandez   Racists and sexists get replaced

Rubina Madan Fillion   Fighting the reality of deepfakes

Libby Bawcombe   Haikus of the news

Sue Cross   Return of the water cooler

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting is media’s slow food movement

Almar Latour   Reported facts, weaponized in service of action

Ståle Grut   A new dawn for 3D tech in journalism

Cătălina Albeanu   Being responsible for what we don’t know

Heather Chaplin   Agree we’re partisan — for the democratic system

Dan Shanoff   Bet on sports gambling

Frank Chimero   Leave the phone at home and put news on your wrist

Callie Schweitzer   The rise of the conveners

Kevin Douglas Grant   A year to embrace journalism as public service

P. Kim Bui   The misfits become the bosses

Nisha Chittal   The homepage makes a comeback

Eric Ulken   The year you actually start to like your CMS

Rishad Patel   A design system for responsible publishing

Dave Burdick   Seeing our blind spots

Soo Oh   Just showing our work isn’t enough

Ben Werdmuller   The platform tide is turning

Monique Judge   Committing to the truth, calling out lies

Hearken   Pivot to people

Nikki Usher   Three ways national media will further undermine trust

Geetika Rudra   The year of actionable (local) journalism

Jesse Brown   Canada’s subsidy for news backfires

Winny de Jong   Data journalism goes undercover

Stephanie Edgerly   It’s time to understand the un-audience

Renée Kaplan   Our future could lie within our own organizations

Bill Grueskin   Toward a symphony model for local news

Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff   From news fatigue to news avoidance

Julia Rubin   Meeting people where they are

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   A more sincere definition of “community”

Colleen Shalby   Representation becomes more than a talking point

Claire Wardle   Forget deepfakes: Misinformation is showing up in our most personal online spaces

Joe Amditis   Give the audience a seat at the table

Celeste LeCompte   Local news needs local conversation to survive

Robin Kwong   Tech shouldn’t be the only field pollinating “news nerds”

Whitney Phillips   Our information systems aren’t broken — they’re working as intended

Mike Caulfield   Ditch the media literacy cynicism and get to work

Patrick Butler   Measuring impact will increase audience trust

Sarah Marshall   A return to destination journalism

Adam Smith   Platforms will have to help rebuild trust in news

Frank Mungeam   Tonight at 11: News, sports, and climate change

Knight Foundation   A year of local collaboration

Christa Scharfenberg and Vickie Baranetsky   The year of the lawsuit

Elite Truong   What do we owe the next generation?

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   The most beautiful sentence in 2019 is “No.”

Sarah Alvarez   Simplify and redistribute

Linda Solomon Wood   The year of the climate reporter

Victor Pickard   We will finally confront systemic market failure

Kate Myers   Journalism continues to be bad for democracy

Tushar Banerjee   Interactive ads will be the new face of display advertising

Don Day   Timewalls and other reader revenue experiments

Jean Friedman Rudovsky   Cross-newsroom collaborations strengthen communities

Mat Yurow   Content competition from the tech companies

Shalabh Upadhyay   A culture clash on India’s growing Internet

Thomas Hanitzsch   The rise of tribal journalism

Kawandeep Virdee   Media wants to take care of you

Logan Molyneux   Seeing social media for what it is

Steve Myers   From trying to cover it all to covering what matters

Simon Galperin   After capitalism’s fire, journalism’s secondary succession

Elisabeth Goodridge   Yes, they signed up — but our job’s not over

Gideon Lichfield   Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

Adam B. Ellick   Video forensic reporting goes mainstream — and local

Jeremy Gilbert   AI finally becomes helpful

Michael Grant   More newsrooms experiment their way to success

Amy King   We should listen to the kids (especially on Instagram)

Reyhan Harmanci   Selling more stories to Hollywood

Rebecca Searles   From silos to Swiss Army knife teams

Greg Emerson   Power to the user

Ben Smith   The pendulum starts to swing back

Efrat Nechushtai   Journalism wants to be your friend, not your teacher

Francesco Zaffarano   Towards a rethinking of journalism on social media

Kelsey Proud   Journalism becomes the escape

Sarah Stonbely   Mapping the local news ecosystem — with scale but detail

Tyler Fisher   This is journalism’s do-or-die moment

Mariana Moura Santos   From pageviews to impact

Steve Henn   Smart speakers get smarter

Andrew Donohue   Voting rights becomes the new climate change

Zainab Khan   Publishers whose products can stand up to social media giants will win

Alberto Cairo   A year of uncertainty and confidence

Kyra Darnton   A shift to depth in video

Manoush Zomorodi   Tech will do for information overload what it did for mindfulness

Nicholas Jackson   More transparency around newsroom decisions

John Garrett   You can’t raise prices forever

Andrea Faye Hart   Doing less harm, not just more good

Jonas Kaiser   Catching up with “Neuland”

Charo Henríquez   Pivot to journalism

Masuma Ahuja   Make foreign coverage less foreign

Joanne McNeil   Building a digital hospice

Nathalie Malinarich   Video — yes, video

Chase Davis   We can acknowledge what we don’t know

Heather Bryant   We are responsible for how we use our power

Ole Reißmann   The rise of vertical storytelling

Zuzanna Ziomecka   News leadership gets an overdue upgrade

Matt Waite   “I went to Node.js because I wished to live deliberately”

Mike Isaac   The old exit doors for digital media companies are closing

Borja Bergareche Sainz de los Terreros   Entering a more balanced era

Angèle Christin   Algorithms and the reflexive turn

Jesse Holcomb   We’ll get better at making the case for local journalism

Raney Aronson-Rath   We learn “digital” doesn’t have to mean “short”

Cory Bergman   Journalism as a technology service

Bill Adair   Another year fighting Trump’s falsehoods

Rick Berke   The year of loyalty

Seema Yasmin   We will create our own spaces

Laura E. Davis   More access, but not that kind

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Podcasting battles East Coast bias

Meredith Artley   Huge demand for…anything but politics

Talia Stroud   Engaging people across lines of difference

Joshua Darr   The nationalization of political news will accelerate

Alexandra Borchardt   Newsrooms need to build trust with their journalists, not just the audience

Pia Frey   You can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis

Ernie Smith   The year we step back from the platform

Shannon McGregor   More bogus embedded tweets in our stories

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Local news isn’t where you thought it was

Julie Posetti   The year of the fight back

Josh Schwartz   A pullback from platforms and a focus on product

Darryl Holliday   Let’s talk about power (yours)

Seth C. Lewis   The gap between journalism and research is too wide

Nico Gendron   Reaching Generation Z beyond the coasts

Tamar Charney   Seriously: What do you do for people?

Carrie Brown-Smith   Advocating a healthy civic life is no journalistic crime

Alexandra Svokos   Good luck convincing us millennials to pay

Sue Robinson   Reporters go on the offensive

Elva Ramirez   News — but make it cinematic

Carl Bialik   Fatigued news consumers will pay more for less news

Alyssa Zeisler   We expand what (and how and who) we serve

Jeff Chin   We detox from Chartbeat

Zizi Papacharissi   Old interface, say hello to the new interface

Hossein Derakhshan   The news is dying, but journalism will not — and should not

Jared Newman   AI-generated fakes launch a software arms race

Glyn Mottershead and Martin Chorley   When a tech company pulls the plug on your story

Kjerstin Thorson   Time to get mad about information inequality (again)

Steve Grove   A reckoning for tech’s work with news

Becca Aaronson   From bridge roles to product thinkers

A.J. Bauer   The coming splintering of conservative media

Jonathan Gill   Publishers build a common tech platform together