For the past fifteen years the web has been a catch-all. A landfill. A place where people came to dump their opinions, thoughts, concerns and drama – and where other people came to enjoy those things for free.
All the while, major media outlets and corporations vied for a share of the attention. But there were very few rules (if any). It was an anything-goes affair.
In this ‘Wild West of the Web’, the concept of paying for a piece of the heap seemed asinine. The internet was a place for making money, not spending money. However, as the abundance of online content continues to increase, the abundance of low-quality online content also increases — but it does so exponentially.
If one follows this trend far enough, the landfill analogy becomes strikingly clear. Eventually, the time will come when users are tired of sifting through the mountains of dirty diapers and decomposing sludge just to find an old iPhone 3 casing or a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! cartridge.
Users are going to want to know exactly which services to employ in order to get content they trust and enjoy. It’s happening with music (Spotify: over 10 million paying subscribers) and with television (Netflix: 50 million active subscribers and 63 percent of Americans use it to stream television daily). Digital publishing is next.
Untangling the web
Half of all Americans now cite the internet as their main source for national and international news. In March 2014, the audience that sought out digital content as supplied by newspaper media reached an all-time high of 161 million adult unique visitors.
It’s clear that the general public is accepting new media as a constant source of trustworthy information. But, at the same time, listicles, click-bait and fluff pieces are at an all-time high too (it feels a bit like the television market: A simultaneous surge in low-brow reality content at the same time as a surge in high-quality dramas).
Right now, the internet is a very tangled place. We need to untangle it. We need to divorce the noise from the content that is worth paying for. Because people are willing to pay.
A recent Digital News Report from Reuters Institute revealed that payments for news content online are on the rise — and not just in the U.S., but around the world as well.
The data in the report indicates that on average, 10 percent of people have paid for news in a digital form in 2014, which is roughly one-third more than last year.
The rate of growth may be slightly deceptive because of the relatively low base from which it started, but what is clear is that there is significant growth in readers around the world who have actually paid for trusted digital news.
Another telling breakdown in the Reuters study shows that not only are payments for digital news on the rise, but the future willingness of consumers to pay for content online is trending upward as well.
But what’s interesting to note in the image below is how much higher the willingness is for those who consider themselves news lovers.
While this may seem rather obvious, it underscores the fact that people are narrowing down their interests online and starting to really think about what information is worth paying for. They’re starting to untangle the web.
People are willing to pay
Perhaps the greatest example of people embracing digital publishing and forking over their cash to consume it, is the Dutch news site, De Correspondent. The site raised $1.7 million from about 20,000 people, in what is still one of the world’s most successful journalistic crowdfunding efforts.
But wait, there’s more. The site has been able to convert over half of its initial supporters into regular subscribers. That means it now has almost 30,000 paying customers who contribute $76 a year. That’s about $2 million.
“For those newspapers and magazines that haven’t yet begun charging,” wrote Robert G. Picard, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute, “the key questions are: When will they implement digital pay systems, what content will they charge for, on what platforms, under what circumstances, how, and at what price. Some may continue to pursue a free access policy for a time in order to build digital audiences (such as The Guardian), but at some point most will switch to some sort of pay system to remain economically viable.”
But if people are going to pay for something, it had better be worth it. It will take more than just untangling the web, and filtering it based on quality.
We have to actively improve the quality of even our highest-quality digital content. We must widen the gap between the good and the bad. It must become obvious to users which content online is the dirty diaper and which is the awesome Punch-Out!! cartridge. What is really required to support this shift is what I call Digital Sophistication.
Content with a price tag
First and foremost, we need to foster the creation of unique and original in-depth content. Folks at Facebook and Google are already implementing algorithms that detect content quality and depth.
Facebook announced recently that they would be cracking down on deceptive, click-bait headlines (we’re talking about you, Upworthy) and giving them less propulsion on news feeds.
Studies conducted by Google suggest that upwards of 10 percent of people’s daily information needs fall into the category of in-depth, high-quality original writing. They have already rolled out an “In-Depth Articles” search feature that helps these types of sophisticated results float to the top.
Content must be prioritized. If tech-giants like Facebook and Google are working toward a more digitally-sophisticated future, than we as content creators must do our part as well (the giants aren’t always right, but in this particular case, they are doing something to benefit the user experience, not their bottom line).
Content over clicks. That’s what it’s all about. The web should not be a popularity contest. We’ve been prioritizing traffic generation for far too long.
The primary use for tools like Chartbeat and Google Analytics should not be to check how popular your website is becoming but, instead, to check out how your users are interacting with your service.
We’ve been prioritizing traffic generation for far too long.
For the first time in publishing history, we can open up the process and create a responsive, two-way relationship with our readers.
Instead of just pushing content to readers the way newspapers and magazines have done for decades — centuries even — we can analyze readers’ interest in content, see what content they are consuming and for how long, what content they are skipping over and why.
We can then craft the experience to better suit the readers’ desires. This sort of circular publishing model, when used correctly, hones the product to near-perfection (think of analytics and metrics as Letters to the Editor in a digital age). And some big outlets are starting to look at publishing in this exact way.
GigaOm has a great article that explains how BuzzFeed, Quartz and Gawker have all started to look at what they do as a product/service instead of just content distribution.
Another valuable way of looking at this shift is to think of the media landscape now as a demand-driven model, instead of a supply-driven model. But where there is demand, there must also be accessibility.
Reimagining content accessibility
Content is being accessed in new ways. More than 60 percent of smartphone owners say they routinely consume the news on their handheld device. And time spent on mobile apps now accounts for 52 percent of all digital media usage.
Including time spent in browsers, the total time spent using mobile media has now hit 60 percent (compared to 40 percent for desktop usage).
This trend is even higher among the owners of superior smartphones. If you’ve heard about “mobile first” design, these sorts of figures are what’s driving the trend.
And as smartphones become even better reading devices (see iPhone 6 Plus) these numbers will only increase. Digital publishers must think like mobile designers, not web designers.
Another massive consumption trend we’re seeing is time-shifted reading. The concept first came about with the introduction of on-demand television. But since services like Pocket, Instapaper and Readbility have really upped their offerings, users have been saving their digital reading content for later.
“Printed media used to allow us to read in the places we found most comfortable,” Nate Weiner, CEO of Pocket, wrote on the company’s blog back in 2011. “When you imagine yourself reading the newspaper it’s probably in your favorite chair, at the breakfast table, or at the cafe with an orange mocha frappuccino in your hand.”
In March of this year, Pocket proudly announced their one billionth save. In 2013 alone, Pocket saved 450 million articles for later, which was twice the amount from 2012 — a staggering increase. Even Facebook has recently launched a ‘Save’ feature.
In 2011, Pocket published a very enlightening chart depicting the read-it-later trend for users who owned both a computer and an iPad.
The information clearly suggests that iPad owners are far more likely to save content they find online for a later time when they are in a place (or state of mind) to more comfortably enjoy it.
The mobile magazine as respected publication
The fact is, Digital Sophistication requires one critical ingredient: Respect for readers. Respecting what readers want to read, how they want to read it and when. It’s an anti-capital approach that may, in fact, generate capital.
Hamish McKenzie, a writer for Tesla Motors, recently wrote in Pando Daily:
The content-first approach to modern publishing may turn out to be a winner, even as the business challenges for journalism remain significant and unresolved… Soon, if it’s not true already, magazine brands will matter more as marks of quality or tone than they do as gatherers and arrangers of content in a unified experience… That is the standard to which magazines of the mobile era must aspire.
Putting the reader before the bottom line could be good for both.
[A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.]