Pay-to-Read Websites Stink. Here’s Why

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I bet you’ve done it–click on a link to a site like The New York Times or Medium, only to have it tell you in a classic pay-to-read setup that you need to buy a subscription to keep reading, or that you’re out of free articles for the month.

Lamest. Move. Ever.

Let’s talk about inequality, shall we?

I’m not pretending that these organizations don’t need to make money. They do. They can’t pay their writers and other staff otherwise, and I believe heavily in fair pay for everything involved in bringing stories to readers.

The trouble is, whether these organizations like it or not, pay-to-read means that it becomes significantly harder for people who are in lower income groups to participate and understand what the publications are covering. Some large media companies acknowledge the potential for subscriptions to widen inequality gaps.

Libraries are a vital champion in this fight for equality, providing access to patrons. But this situation still can create real difficulties for people of all ages who want the reliable information and resources necessary to make informed choices. In times of crises where libraries shutter, such as an environmental disaster or COVID-19, traditional workarounds through library access might no longer be as accessible for those who can’t afford their own computer or mobile device.

Although a person might be able to afford $2 or $3 a month for a membership, they might not be able to cover the cost of the device and Internet access necessary to use that membership. Remember, too, even $2 or $3 over a dozen or so sites–which you’d want for more variety and objective research/learning–can make someone in poverty or who is living paycheck to paycheck look hard at their budget. It’s significant money to them.

When pay-to-read makes work harder

Writers and other workers often need a reliable way to access important news reports, journal articles, and other information. This is especially true when some of those publications, such as Forbes, have such an industry reputation that they’re held up as examples of reliability for journalistic standards and acceptable referencing. In some instances where an individual is fighting the publication clock, such as with a breaking news situation, it might not be possible to take much time to set up new accounts. The risk thus becomes using less desirable pieces in their source list or the inability to quote an original source. This can make their work appear to be less thorough or accurate. And if you are trying to freelance or start your career, trustworthy sources are one of the only things that get an editor to take you seriously.

Pay-to-read can mean fewer eyeballs, less money, and reduced reputation

One consideration for writers and contributors is that, if a user encounters a paywall they don’t want or can’t deal with, that user isn’t going to see the writer’s content. They’re just going to click away. This is particularly the case when a person comes to the site for the first time and doesn’t know if it’s trustworthy yet. So it’s potentially harder to get their voice out there, build a reputation and gain a loyal following that presents income and new opportunities, especially when real growth happens when readers start backlinking to and sharing the existing work.

Options to get rid of pay-to-read once and for all

So what are publications supposed to do? They can’t just expect everyone to work for free. A better balance might be found in

  • creating donation-based operations, such as support organizations like National Public Radio. General donations could come from users, but also from independent non-profit organizations or investors in industries related to the publication. The publications simply would need to make their affiliations clear in public disclosure statements or tax forms.
  • looking for grants.
  • allowing users to cover the cost of someone else’s subscription as a randomized gift, with those in need applying to receive those gifts and matched based on wait list time or consideration of need in specific demographics/communities.
  • getting more stringent about what they publish and how much.
  • investing in systems that could automate certain steps to allow companies to trim costs and let workers focus more on the creative side of the content, with no reduction in hours or pay required.
  • developing partnerships/syndications.
  • providing opt-in, paid access to other niche “goodies”, such as live webinars, email digests, apps, etc.

Of course, all this balancing takes time and resources, too. Organizations should find ways to convince all users to do their part if they can, rather than assume other users will pick up the slack. But publications that take this approach to get rid of paywalls stand to broaden their readership significantly. And there are companies who see the advantage of taking paywalls down. Quartz, which removed their paywall in April 2022, is one prominent example. More importantly, access to all information is part of what helps people make meaningful contributions to their communities and the world. That’s worth finding creative means of support.