The Perils of Paid Content

By Andrew Potter

Back in the late nineties and early 2000s, I worked in various capacities for This Magazine, a spunky little lefty magazine in Toronto. I wrote for it, helped edit the front of the book, and served for a while on the editorial board. The magazine’s slogan was “nobody owns us”, by which they meant two things. First, there was no corporate owner calling the shots, and second, there were no advertisers to speak of.

As declarations of independence go, it was as wrong as it was proud. Pretty much everywhere you go in life, there’s always an owner, there is always somebody to answer to, someone calling the shots. In the case of This Magazine, there were two such owners. First, the magazine has charitable status (it is technically an educational charity) and is hence highly constrained by the requirements of that status and the limitations it puts on the sorts of things it can publish. Staying onside of the CRA was always a problem.

But more importantly, the magazine relied quite heavily on its relatively few subscribers for its revenue, which means the subscriber base was uniquely positioned to call the shots with respect to the magazine’s content. We would never have really admitted it, but catering to subscribers was a constant concern. Subscribers wanted the magazine to have a certain kind of politics, and hence had the editors in a box. Stepping even gingerly out of that box risked a flurry of complaints or even cancellations. (True story: a subscriber to This Magazine once cancelled her subscription because she was angry about something I had written in the National Post. Chew on that one for a bit.)

I don’t say any of this to pick on This Magazine. It’s still a spunky little magazine, I wrote for it just last year, and I encourage everyone to give it a read. But from this example I think there are a few lessons to be gleaned for the future of journalism, in particular the future of paid content.

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When I was a student journalist, it was axiomatic that advertising was the biggest threat to independent media. Putting your livelihood in the hands of capitalists meant, ipso facto, doing their bidding.

Experience is a great teacher though, and when I started working as an editor at a newspaper, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that you didn’t wake up every day to a swarm of calls from outraged advertisers threatening to pull their campaigns if we didn’t smarten up. Yes, of course, advertisers called to complain on occasion, usually for one of two reasons. One was to complain about the stories that happened to be placed next to their ads — unfortunate juxtapositions do happen, though it is hard to do much about it. Advertisers also sometimes called to complain about what they saw as unfair treatment. For example, say we did a Thanksgiving feature on the gourds available at local supermarkets. If we mentioned one supermarket without mentioning the competitor who carried the same suite of gourds and who also happened to spend a lot of money on ads in our paper, we’d hear about it. And truth be told, these sorts of complaints were almost always legitimate.

But on the whole, advertisers didn’t spend a lot of time trying to dictate what went into the news pages, presumably because they didn’t really care. What they wanted was our audience, not the content. Also, an ad-driven newspaper benefits from having their advertisers in a nice little collective action problem. Coke and Pepsi might both disapprove of the content of the Podunk Examiner, but if the audience is valuable enough to pay to reach, then each has an interest in continuing to advertise in it. If Pepsi pulls their ads, Coke gets unchallenged access to that audience, and vice versa.

But you know who does complain a lot? Subscribers do, endlessly. Sometimes with good reason, but many other times, with no justification at all. I lost count of the number of times I took calls from readers calling to complain about something they had read in The Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star or had heard on the CBC, but who swore it was in our pages. Sometimes you could tell these readers to take a hike (newsroom legend told of a managing editor who once screamed at a caller “you are too stupid to be reading our newspaper!” before hanging up), but as the business declined, as readers and advertisers fled, it became less advisable to treat readers as an annoyance.

Today, the great hope for mainstream news organizations is that subscribers will start doing something they’ve never done, which is pay for news. The New York Times seems well on its way to bending that revenue curve and replacing ad dollars with subscribers at a 1:1 ratio, and there’s similar hopes for the Washington Post, the FT, and maybe the Wall Street Journal. Smaller metropolitan or regional papers are hoping for the same thing, once the great shakeup is finally done.

But here’s the thing about paid content: One of our great cultural principles is the maxim, “the customer is always right.” This is not an empirical statement. Rather, it is part of the metaphysical foundations of the market economy. Maybe the steak was cooked badly, or maybe the customer just has bad taste. Doesn’t matter: When it comes to spending his or her money, the consumer is sovereign.

So what happens when you apply this to news? My suspicion is that it will lead to an increasingly polarized media environment, through more or less the same mechanism that leads to group polarization in social psychology. When a news organization relies almost entirely on its readership for its revenue, it will inevitably start to cater to what the owners perceive to be the political centre of gravity of that readership. And the readership will in turn make demands on the editors to shape the coverage in certain ways, which will tend to gradually shift that centre of gravity away from the middle, and towards the political extremes. The organization will end up in a content box the readership won’t let them out of.

You can already see this process at work in the social media space. Whenever, say, the NYT does a story that the Twittersphere decides is off base (as in the paper’s much-derided profile of a white nationalist) a consensus rapidly emerges and the reporters and/or editors get treated to the now-traditional social media pile on. At a slighter lower pitch, news organizations are also subject to more or less constant complaints over photo selection, headlines (“Here NBC I fixed your headline for you”), story subjects, you name it.

Sometimes these complaints are valid, and sometimes when they are not, the editors have the stomach to ignore the torrent of abuse. But in a world where readers are the ones paying the bills, they are ultimately the ones calling the shots. When the readers become the de facto owners, it can only lead in one direction, which is that paying for news will give us a media that is more partisan, not less.