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.

Michael Grant   More newsrooms experiment their way to success

Josh Schwartz   A pullback from platforms and a focus on product

Callie Schweitzer   The rise of the conveners

Rishad Patel   A design system for responsible publishing

Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff   From news fatigue to news avoidance

Adam Thomas   In Europe, foundations invest in news

Justin Kosslyn   Text hits a tipping point

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

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

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

Sue Cross   Return of the water cooler

Ernie Smith   The year we step back from the platform

Greg Emerson   Power to the user

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

Jonas Kaiser   Catching up with “Neuland”

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

Heba Aly   The rise of international nonprofit news

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

Seema Yasmin   We will create our own spaces

Jesse Brown   Canada’s subsidy for news backfires

Kainaz Amaria   We consider who’s behind the camera

M. Scott Havens   Time to swing for the fences

A.J. Bauer   The coming splintering of conservative media

Sarah Alvarez   Simplify and redistribute

Heather Bryant   We are responsible for how we use our power

Rebecca Searles   From silos to Swiss Army knife teams

Elva Ramirez   News — but make it cinematic

Cory Bergman   Journalism as a technology service

Dave Burdick   Seeing our blind spots

Jeremy Gilbert   AI finally becomes helpful

Tamar Charney   Seriously: What do you do for people?

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

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

Cherian George   Fake news wins in Asia

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

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

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

Alexandra Svokos   Good luck convincing us millennials to pay

Jean Friedman Rudovsky   Cross-newsroom collaborations strengthen communities

Patrick Butler   Measuring impact will increase audience trust

Zuzanna Ziomecka   News leadership gets an overdue upgrade

Michael Rain   The year of the culturally relevant curator

John Saroff   The pivot to reader revenue’s unintended consequences

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

Ole Reißmann   The rise of vertical storytelling

Cătălina Albeanu   Being responsible for what we don’t know

John Biewen   Podcasts keep getting better

Taylor Lorenz   Personal branding is more powerful than ever

Moreno Cruz Osório   Damaged credibility and a new threat in Brazil

Renan Borelli   Developing loyalty means developing your talent

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

Jonathan Gill   Publishers build a common tech platform together

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

Craig Newmark   The end of “loudspeakers for liars”

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

Ståle Grut   A new dawn for 3D tech in journalism

Ben Smith   The pendulum starts to swing back

Carolina Guerrero   Spanish-language audio blows up

Robert Hernandez   Racists and sexists get replaced

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

Borja Bergareche Sainz de los Terreros   Entering a more balanced era

John Garrett   You can’t raise prices forever

Nathalie Malinarich   Video — yes, video

Talia Stroud   Engaging people across lines of difference

Candis Callison   Learn from Indigenous journalists on covering climate change

Libby Bawcombe   Haikus of the news

Kelsey Proud   Journalism becomes the escape

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

Emma Carew Grovum   The year of the loyal reader

Rodney Gibbs   A bright — and young — year for audio

Eric Ulken   The year you actually start to like your CMS

Eric Nuzum   The year of the DIY podcast network

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

Laura E. Davis   More access, but not that kind

Mariana Moura Santos   From pageviews to impact

Marie Shanahan   Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

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

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

Errin Haines Whack   Say it with me: Racism

Elizabeth Dunbar   Local reporters reflect on what’s not important

Kate Myers   Journalism continues to be bad for democracy

Kyra Darnton   A shift to depth in video

Joanne McNeil   Building a digital hospice

Angèle Christin   Algorithms and the reflexive turn

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Readers are only getting started

Logan Molyneux   Seeing social media for what it is

Nico Gendron   Reaching Generation Z beyond the coasts

Ariel Zirulnick   Participation gets professional

Zizi Papacharissi   Old interface, say hello to the new interface

P. Kim Bui   The misfits become the bosses

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

Soo Oh   Just showing our work isn’t enough

Mandy Jenkins   Fight the urge to run away from social media

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

Dan Shanoff   Bet on sports gambling

LaToya Drake   Listen up: New stories, new storytellers

Monique Judge   Committing to the truth, calling out lies

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

Alexis Lloyd & Matt Boggie   The year product leads media

Julia Rubin   Meeting people where they are

Gabriel Snyder   Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

Don Day   Timewalls and other reader revenue experiments

Darryl Holliday   Let’s talk about power (yours)

Nisha Chittal   The homepage makes a comeback

Gideon Lichfield   Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

Nicholas Jackson   More transparency around newsroom decisions

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Podcasting battles East Coast bias

Charo Henríquez   Pivot to journalism

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

Carl Bialik   Fatigued news consumers will pay more for less news

Steve Henn   Smart speakers get smarter

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

Annie Rudd   A more intimate aesthetic of politics — on Insta

Shalabh Upadhyay   A culture clash on India’s growing Internet

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

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

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting is media’s slow food movement

Rick Berke   The year of loyalty

Kristen Muller   Local news fails — in a good way

Becca Aaronson   From bridge roles to product thinkers

Mike Caulfield   Ditch the media literacy cynicism and get to work

Steve Grove   A reckoning for tech’s work with news

Meredith Artley   Huge demand for…anything but politics

Mario García   The rise of content “pilots”

Salem Solomon   Correcting our corrections

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

Thomas Hanitzsch   The rise of tribal journalism

Christa Scharfenberg and Vickie Baranetsky   The year of the lawsuit

Andrew Ramsammy   The great re-pivot to audio

Rachel Glickhouse   Newsrooms will prioritize audience needs

Masuma Ahuja   Make foreign coverage less foreign

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

Joel Konopo   Influencers become the new liberated power in Africa

Geetika Rudra   The year of actionable (local) journalism

Alberto Cairo   A year of uncertainty and confidence

Stefanie Murray   Local news wakes up and starts collaborating

Jared Newman   AI-generated fakes launch a software arms race

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

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

Kawandeep Virdee   Media wants to take care of you

Andrea Faye Hart   Doing less harm, not just more good

Elizabeth Jensen   Going where the Acela can’t take you

Julie Posetti   The year of the fight back

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

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

Rubina Madan Fillion   Fighting the reality of deepfakes

Jack Riley   Facebook refugees, from ad revenue to news habits

Renée Kaplan   Our future could lie within our own organizations

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

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

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

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

Colleen Shalby   Representation becomes more than a talking point

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

Tim Carmody   Unlocking the commons

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

Peter Cunliffe-Jones   The focus of misinformation debates shifts south

Winny de Jong   Data journalism goes undercover

Rachel Davis Mersey   Local news goes minimalist

Nikki Usher   Three ways national media will further undermine trust

Ben Werdmuller   The platform tide is turning

Linda Solomon Wood   The year of the climate reporter

Victor Pickard   We will finally confront systemic market failure

Bill Adair   Another year fighting Trump’s falsehoods

Knight Foundation   A year of local collaboration

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

Bill Grueskin   Toward a symphony model for local news

Shannon McGregor   More bogus embedded tweets in our stories

Brian Moritz   The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit

Mandy Velez   Putting the social back in social media

Johannes Klingebiel   We all grow hooves

Almar Latour   Reported facts, weaponized in service of action

Pablo Boczkowski   Reimagining the media for post-institutional times

Francesco Zaffarano   Towards a rethinking of journalism on social media

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

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

Jim Friedlich   Meet Citizen Kane 2.0

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

Peter Bale   Venture capital runs out of patience

Francesco Marconi   The year of iterative journalism

Joe Amditis   Give the audience a seat at the table

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

Matthew Pressman   The battle over objectivity intensifies

Matt Skibinski   Quality and reliability are the new currencies for publishers

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

Hearken   Pivot to people

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

Elite Truong   What do we owe the next generation?

Celeste LeCompte   Local news needs local conversation to survive

Kevin Douglas Grant   A year to embrace journalism as public service

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

Dheerja Kaur   A focus on problems, not platforms

Adam Smith   Platforms will have to help rebuild trust in news

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

Jeff Chin   We detox from Chartbeat

Simon Rogers   Data journalism becomes a global field

Lauren Katz   Community becomes a core newsroom value

Mat Yurow   Content competition from the tech companies

Reyhan Harmanci   Selling more stories to Hollywood

Chase Davis   We can acknowledge what we don’t know

Sarah Marshall   A return to destination journalism

Andrew Donohue   Voting rights becomes the new climate change

Joshua Darr   The nationalization of political news will accelerate

Sue Robinson   Reporters go on the offensive

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