Take my money: Why you're paying for free media willingly

In 2017, we started subscribing in droves, even if we had free alternatives. What happened?

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
6 min read
Aaron Robinson/CNET

By many standards, 2017 was a dismal year for digital media .

Once-buzzy publishers deflated. Hoax reports infected our searches and social feeds after tragedies. All those "fake news" stories about politics last year? Yeah, it turned out to be worse than we imagined. And on YouTube, 2017 first brought ads next to repugnant videos, then the stuff of nightmares for our kids, and finally, to wrap up the year, child exploitation.

But this year also marked a turning point. Many of you realized that free online media sometimes can come with steep, hidden costs like the exposure of your personal information -- so you opened your wallets. The trend underscores an underlying shift in our internet-connected society, in which consumers are more willing to subscribe for the media they love. 

There's a growing appreciation for services or publications that help cut through the noise.

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, says readers have increasingly decided to subscribe to directly support journalism they value. 

Getty Images

With the proliferation of information on social media, internet consumers can't "manage drinking from a fire hose at all times," Miki King, the vice president of operations at The Washington Post, said in an interview last month. More readers are realizing that "in order to get quality, I'm going to have to pay," she said.

The Post has benefited from the torrent of news. Its digital-only subscriptions have more than doubled since Jan. 1 and more than tripled since September 2016.

But the trend involves more than just news. Music service Spotify has been adding more subscribers than any competitor without the benefit of splashy new-music exclusives. Membership site Patreon, started by a YouTuber, will process more than $150 million in recurring membership payments to independent creators this year alone, after the company took three and a half years to get to the $100 million mark.

When it comes to what we watch, read and listen to online, we're setting up ways to continually pay for what we could get for free. Why?

The Trump bump

In a phenomenon known as the Trump bump, subscriptions at traditional news organizations have surged since the presidential election of Donald Trump . The number of Americans paying for digital news climbed to 16 percent from 9 percent, including a tripling in news donations, according to a Reuters Institute survey (PDF) conducted in February soon after his inauguration.  

President Donald J. Trump

President Donald J. Trump has spurred a bump in subscriptions at some publications, as his agenda for significant government change and his criticisms of the press have stoked some consumers to pay news outlets they value. 

Getty Images

The Trump "agenda of high change" had readers grappling for understanding, David Rubin, the senior vice president of audience and brand at The New York Times, said in an interview last month. "That leads you to quality of information, and that leads you into pay sources."

The main trigger of the Trump bump is, obviously, Trump himself. Liberals have swarmed to support outlets they view as adversarial to him. And Trump's own attacks against specific outlets can spike subscription interest. Vanity Fair, for example, added 80,000 new subscribers in the month after Trump slammed the publication on Twitter. A promotion on its website urged visitors to subscribe to the "MAGAZINE TRUMP DOESN'T WANT YOU TO READ."

But there's more going on than just Trump. The New Yorker has seen a surge in new subscribers since the election, but those readers are "coming for reports beyond what's the latest with the Trump administration," said Dwayne Sheppard, the New Yorker's vice president of consumer marketing for Conde Nast. "They can't live without their Netflix subscription, their Spotify subscription, their New Yorker subscription."

In the midst of a media cacophony, consumers are putting a premium on publications that can offer a clear perspective on the world.

"People are concerned about the polluted pool of information," Martin Baron, the executive editor at The Washington Post, said last week at a conference. Readers, he said, are realizing that "unless they support quality journalism, there won't be quality journalism."  

The dark side

As the failings of online media piled up this year, the smoldering rubble often lay at the feet of tech giants like Facebook and Google .

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook has more than 2 billion people visiting every month. That immense scale has made the social network an advertising juggernaut, but it's also made abuse difficult to root out. 

James Martin/CNET

Often referred to in advertising circles as "the duopoly," Facebook and Google dominate digital advertising. Their combined share stood at 63.1 percent of US digital ad money, according to eMarketer, and their lead ahead of everyone else appears to be widening. Google and Facebook's share of ad growth -- that is, the new money coming into digital ad budgets -- is estimated as high as 99 percent, according to Pivotal Research.

For an advertising business to be successful, it needs scale -- the phrase for the unending drive to reach more eyeballs. Companies like Facebook and Google have reached unprecedented scale. Facebook, for one, reaches more than 2 billion people every month. But the downside of such immense scale is that human intervention can't keep up when the platform is being exploited for ill.

Facebook and Google declined to comment specifically for this article. Over the course of the year, Google's YouTube has expanded efforts addressing abusive usage and has worked to improve search result quality, among other efforts. Facebook has widened its work countering election interference and hoax stories, as well as other responses.

Brendan Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla in 1998, said the internet is approaching a change to its whole ecosystem. "Ads are not winning, the Googles and Facebooks are just so dominant. You start to have these waves of resentment from everybody who is not a big winner," he said.

"People are aware of this over time," Eich said. "Patreon and things like that are a good sign. That was not there 10 years ago."

Brave Software CEO and JavaScript inventor Brendan Eich

Brendan Eich, who co-founded Mozilla and invented JavaScript, now runs Brave, a web browser that blocks ads but lets users donate to websites they visit. 

Stephen T. Shankland/CNET

Eich is now CEO of Brave, a web browser with ad-blocking built into its foundation. The company last month began adding ways for users to selectively donate to the websites they visit ad-free.

Growing up

The internet and the people who use it are growing up. The internet itself hasn't aged well, with its maturity exposing inherent flaws. But the people populating the internet may be getting savvier. 

At least, the young ones are.

Millennials may be derided as avocado toast-eating narcissists, but the Reuters Institute study this year found that most of the new digital journalism payments have come from the young. Rubin said he's observed that readers in their 20s and early 30s are more inclined to pay for subscription services and the news.

He attributes that in part to being more accustomed to subscriptions generally. Data show that the more subscriptions you have, the younger you're likely to be, Rubin said. But more than that, younger consumers appear to be more motivated to directly reward creators and outlets that appear to be caught in a system shortchanging them.

"In news specifically, they've seen the consequences of believing just whatever comes to you, and they're interested in combating that," Rubin said.

That's not to suggest subscription-based businesses targeting young people hold a golden ticket. The past year claimed victims there too. Fullscreen, a company that specializes in popular short-form video creators, shuttered its attempt to create a Netflix-like subscription-streaming service packed with digital stars.

Patreon CEO Jack Conte

Patreon, a service that lets fans fund creators with bespoke subscriptions, was started by CEO Jack Conte, a YouTuber and musician who was aggravated by the meager payouts he'd get for videos with tons of views. 


But it's a far cry from the previous generation's habit of illegally downloading movies and music, and the expectation that all online news should be free.

Patreon, which gives fans a way to pay their favorite creators on a recurring basis, is now processing millions of dollars that help independent creators keep doing what they're already doing.

"There is something different about the newer generations that have grown up with the internet ... who, when they spend money, think about the system that they're funding," said Jack Conte, founder and CEO of Patreon. "It's not that the world is a shittier place, it's that now we know about it. That breeds a certain anger and ambition in people."

In other words, 2017 spurred people to open their wallets to make the world a little less shitty, one subscription at a time. 

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