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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.

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