‘I Can’t Go For That’

We all love reading on the web, it’s the greatest treasure trove of interestingness that we as humans have ever been given. We can get news, moments after it happened — often before the big news sites know about it. Or we can laugh all day at people doing incredibly stupid things.

We can read and watch inspiring content all year long without running dry.

But who is paying for it?

In a popular article by the editor-in-chief of Technology Review, Jason Pontin lays out how this problem of free content arose:

For publishers whose businesses evolved during the long day of print newspapers and magazines, the expansion of the Internet was tremendously disorienting. The Internet taught readers they might read stories whenever they liked without charge, and it offered companies more efficient ways to advertise. Both parties spent less.

Publishers didn’t see a potential problem with going free and because of that, content creators on the web are paying for it.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fondness that publishers have with advertisements. They are everywhere on the web. But they are simply not the solution to the problem of paying the bills. They are a band aid that we have all been wearing for far too long.

I say this as someone who makes money from writing that is solely supported by advertisements.

The reason advertisements don’t work in the long run is because of the open nature of the web. It’s not hard to install a plugin that blocks ads (even easier if you buy a Mac given the fondness advertisers have for Flash based ads). 1

Ads are likely not the future, or the answer, because as readers we have many, many, tools that allow us to ignore, gloss over, or outright remove ads from content. Even if an advertiser still registers a page view on their ad, when they stop seeing returns on their advertisements they will no longer desire to pay publishers. This is where the market is beginning to head — the race to the bottom.

The Often Asked, Often Ignored, Question

The most frequent question I get, is also the one I most frequently ignore: are you planning on going “full-time”? By that readers simply want to know if and/or when I will start writing this site full-time.

The reality is that the landscape is so competitive and experiencing such a race to the bottom, that to go full-time is no easy task. I have much respect for those that have gone full-time with a site that was only a hobby before, but it is no easy task because its about so much more than ads, money, readers, or page views.

Ads in the sidebar simply don’t pay that well — which is why so many sites have more than one ad. RSS Sponsorships pay better, but are very difficult to fill unless you are a Tier One blog 2 . And so back to the often asked, often ignored question, of when I will go full-time: when my income from writing matches or surpasses my income from my day job.

And thus, we have a problem, because as readers on the web we are conditioned to not have to pay with anything more than (sometimes) looking at advertising. But that’s wrong — it’s destructive — and it needs to change.

Contractors don’t build houses for free, just so long as you look at ads on your walls for the rest of your occupancy — they charge real money, because it takes real money to build a house. So too does it take real money to write a site like this.

To support writing this site full-time I need income to pay for many different things, not the least of which is paying me.

The Way Forward

I could sit here all day and talk about why I think the current model is broken, but that solves nothing. I personally only see one way forward: asking readers to support you.

It’s the direct model, it’s old-fashioned, but it works. If blogs are no longer driven by page views, then we — as a whole — get better content 3 , content we as readers deserve.

Because I personally don’t see what Pontin saw back in 2009 as being a web that I want:

Editors can charge readers for content that is uniquely intelligent; that relies on proprietary data, investigation, or analysis; that helps readers with their jobs, investments, or personal consumption; or that is very expensively designed. Everything else should be available free, because it is news or opinion, which are commodities and must be offered up to the aggregators, social networks, and feeds. Such content can be monetized (to use the ugly jargon of our industry) only through traffic, which drives ad impressions. Here, although the quality of the editorial should meet the minimal standards of a publication, editors shouldn’t invest too much time or money: good enough is best.

We see this model now, it’s the jackasstic type of writing that propelled Mike Daisey to fame, keeps The Macalope from running out of content to mock day in and day out.

When the metric for how much money you will make writing on the web becomes how much traffic you can drive, then the metric for the level of quality and truth needed in your writing is severely diminished.

This is not the web I want.

I can see a future where the readers of the web find the writers that they love to read and decide that it is worth supporting those writers so that they may continue their craft. It’s not utopia, it’s not impractical — it’s just hard to see through the dust cloud that has been formed by a stampede rush to the free content — a model that was created by the very companies that are now on the verge of bankruptcy because of it. Expectations were set, and unfortunately for us all, they were the wrong expectations.

I’ve long held contempt for free, and while ads are not free — they are also positioned in an incredibly competitive landscape with many people willing to take much less money for the same work — until of course they realize they should be paid more, by which time someone else will be willing to be paid less.

That’s a nasty cycle.

There is a place for ads on the web, but it should no longer be the default revenue model.

As content creators on the web, we need to decide who we, individually, want to pay us.

When I stop to think about asking a reader to pay me directly, I often worry that such an ask comes across as greedy.

However, when you stop to think about it, is it that I am being greedy for asking you to support my content — my writing — or is it that society has condition web users to be greedy by asking — no demanding — that content on the web be free for all?

A race to the bottom is occurring, yet I don’t want to stop writing, but I also am not willing to write for free.

As a wise duo once said:

“I can’t go for that, no”

“No can do”

  1. New Macs don’t ship with Flash installed.
  2. Think The Loop or Daring Fireball
  3. This site included.
Originally posted for members on: May 8, 2012
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