Will Twitter’s pay-per-article feature change the game for publishers?

Tired of paywalls on news websites? Want to pay only for content you’re sure you’ll read? Elon Musk has an idea – a pay-per-article feature, which is set to debut exclusively on Twitter soon.

Yes, it’s Twitter, and yes, it’s Musk, whose grandiose plans usually turn into a rather warped reality. But the idea is still worth exploring as media publishers will have an alternative way to monetize their content.

For now, paywalls on most news publications’ websites can only be removed if users pay for a monthly or yearly membership. Musk said he wanted to give Twitter users the option to avoid subscriptions, and he thinks media organizations will also be satisfied with the ability to charge a higher per-article price to readers.

A lot of details are yet to be unveiled. For instance, Musk didn’t say what percentage Twitter would pocket for itself, what conditions media publishers would need to abide by, and which organizations would offer the new feature.

Twitter, bought by Musk in 2022 for $44 billion, needs to grow revenue somehow. Twitter Blue subscriptions aren’t doing well enough, and major advertisers who have fled since the takeover are still worried about Musk’s volatile online presence.

Musk is now trying to lure creators to the platform with the Twitter Subscriptions (previously known as Super Follows) feature and is promising that the company will take no money from them for the first 12 months. Presumably, publishers will also be allowed to keep the extra income for at least a while.

But maybe, just maybe, the pay-per-article feature could work – at least for publishers. Currently, media organizations and readers are loyal to traditional online subscription models. But that doesn’t mean that they work.

Upsides and downsides

Most people now consume news content online. If publishers started giving away content for free, that would be all but signing their own death warrant.

Sure, one can build a model around ads. But that would also mean a flood of annoying clickbait articles, hopeless competition with Google or Facebook, and a master-slave type of relationship with SEO (search engine optimization) practices.

There are success stories. The New York Times soared from under two million digital subscriptions in 2017 to more than three times that amount five years later, and by 2025, US publishers are predicted to generate about $2.9 billion in revenues from the sales of digital newspapers.

However, according to the results of a Statista global survey on news consumption and media trust, respondents from most countries around the world have never used any kind of news subscription service, with 57% reporting that this was the case, compared to just ten percent who did so every day.

A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey asked American adults what they would do if they were trying to access a news story online and had to pay to keep reading or watching it. Only 1% said they would pay for access to the story or outlet.

The thing is, most people, currently still under huge inflationary pressure, simply cannot afford to subscribe to multiple news publications. Another harsh reality is that many publishers are overestimating the size and nature of their audiences.

The Trump bump helped big players like The New York Times and The Washington Post. But smaller regional outlets are not faring that well. For example, Newsday, Long Island’s daily, spent $4 million to implement a paywall but then ended up with only 35 subscribers in three months.

A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey asked American adults what they would do if they were trying to access a news story online and had to pay to keep reading or watching it. Only 1% said they would pay for access to the story or outlet.

Paywalls and subscriptions can, in theory, create stability for publishers income-wise. Such a model can increase reader loyalty and become a license for quality journalism.

However, there’s again a downside. In 2019, Prateek Sibal, a technology policy researcher working to understand the impact of digital technologies at UNESCO, wrote that paywalls lead publications to becoming more partisan.

The model actually works very effectively as an echo chamber. Doesn’t it make sense for paywalled outlets to produce content that their subscribers care about? “This means that issues that affect those who are unable to pay will be covered less and less,” Sibal said.

Time might be ripe for change

Enter Twitter and Musk. The billionaire’s idea is relatively simple – a new micropayment system that allows access to individual articles with a single-click fee. This enables readers who won’t commit to a monthly subscription to enjoy specific content from whichever publisher they like.

Even though there’s still no launch date, to Musk, this is a “win-win” idea. Publishers might see increased revenue from users who wouldn’t have subscribed otherwise, and users would enjoy a certain amount of freedom to choose content. With no active monthly subscription, they wouldn’t have to search for the often strategically hidden option to cancel.

Obviously, if this is well executed, Twitter would reap the benefits as well. Yes, the feature could lead to an increase in clickbaity headlines or sensationalist content because publishers would compete for reader’s attention – and single payments.

But Musk needs people to stay on Twitter as long as possible because traffic is falling. The platform’s web traffic dropped by nearly 8% in March compared to the year before, according to data intelligence company Similarweb.

Twitter's web traffic has been dropping. Courtesy of Similarweb.
Twitter's web traffic has been dropping. Courtesy of Similarweb.

To be fair though, traffic and engagement are two different metrics. Musk has said that he cares most about “unregretted user minutes” which in essence is time on the platform well spent. The ability for Twitter users to pay-per-article directly on the website or app would probably boost engagement.

Media organizations and experts have been discussing micropayments as an alternative way to monetize content for quite a while now. Few have implemented it.

Zete, a San Francisco based startup, sits somewhere in the middle. It charges a monthly $9.99 subscription for access to 30 articles from more than 100 partner publications such as New Scientist, Forbes, or Haaretz.

Google also tried and failed to implement a micropayment system for publishers called One Pass in 2011 but it was shut down not long after in 2012 due to a lack of publisher buy-in.

Even though Twitter is launching something very similar, Musk is apparently not afraid his pay-per-article feature will fail in the same way. Some experts agree that the time for trying this out again might be right.

Elon Musk, the boss of Twitter. Image by Shutterstock.

Probably most importantly, 2023 is radically different to 2012 for consumers and publishers alike. Users have adopted online micropayments for ecommerce, food delivery, and in-game content en masse, and the infrastructure for digital payments is now frictionless.

“Micropayments have the potential to align the incentives and benefits for consumers and publishers alike,” Mike Raab, an award-winning author based in San Francisco says.

“Publishers are incentivized to create high-quality content that consumers are willing to pay for directly, and punished for writing clickbait, while at the same time monetizing users who want to read a few articles a month, but can’t afford or don’t want to pay a hefty monthly or annual subscription.”

Do the numbers actually add up?

According to Raab, publishers would do well if they gave readers the choice. They should be able to either subscribe, pay per article, or read X articles per month with ads. This sounds awfully close to what video streaming platforms do. Quite obviously, publishers should introduce a micropayment solution only for their highest quality written content.

However, not everyone is enthusiastic. There’s a reason why most publishers have gone the paywall way as it is seen as the safest option in an industry suffering from declining sales.

For instance, James Ball, the global editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism who wrote the 2020 book “The System: who owns the internet and how it owns us,” is adamant that publishers have certainly deliberated the pay-per-article model. But the numbers simply don’t add up.

First, most publications are conceived as package deals. Recurrent payment plans are important to outlets as they create stability and, in case the subscription includes a print product, increase the user’s value to advertisers.

That’s why a single subscription might be worth hundreds of dollars of annual revenue to a publication. But if readers instead pay, say, 20 cents for a single article, an outlet will need to attract 500 users to make up for the lost revenue. In that case, prices of each piece will probably get higher.

Besides, the question is also a bit philosophical. The Economist, Vanity Fair, or The New York Times are all package deals. In a newspaper or magazine, one usually finds politics, business, arts – but also sports and entertainment.

“It’s a mix of the heavy and the light. Some stories cost far more to produce than others, but it balances out because you buy the whole thing. That logic dies if you separate them out,” Ball says.

Sure, the gaming industry has mastered micropayments. But in games, you know what you’re buying in advance: three extra lives, a hundred coins or whatever – and you will only know whether you enjoyed an article after you have made the decision to buy it.

“Readers would like to pick the very best content and pay less for it than they would if they subscribed. But no organization – media company, television network, or record company – can produce only hits. Nor should they try,” Ball wrote.

Finally, let us not forget this is Elon Musk we’re talking about. Even if the idea really turns out to be great, will major publishers really trust their revenue to the guy who constantly posts about things he hates but then attacks the media for pumping out a “relentless hatestream”?

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