A song to read by: "Heart Shaped Face," by Angel Olson
What I'm reading: "The Wretched of the Earth," by Frantz Fanon
The MAP map
As dedicated Medialyte readers will recall, in late March I came up with an alternative, theoretical method of paying for news, which I called the “monthly access payment,” or MAP.
I would like to say that I have moved on from the concept, but the truth is I have not. In fact, I have become somewhat obsessed with it. Just the other night I lay awake in bed for hours, unable to sleep while my mind turned the idea over and over again, looking for some flaw in its logic. Reader, I could not find one.
While I still maintain that this is simply a failure on my part to kill my theoretical darlings, I thought perhaps by diving more deeply into the idea, as well as openly asking for reader feedback on it, I might be able to move on.
So, here is my working understanding of a MAP.
MAPs stem from the idea that, thanks to the rising ubiquity of paywalls, publishers increasingly offer their readers only a binary choice when it comes to paying for journalism: either you subscribe, or you don’t read.
Publishers’ economic motivations for paywalling their writing are well-established: digital advertising pays so little that even vast quantities of traffic are often insufficient to finance even a small newsroom.
There are some heartening reasons to believe that this might be changing, but for the most part, publishers have seized on subscriptions as a key part of the solution when it comes to shoring up their bottom lines.
As someone intimately familiar with the financial situations of many major publishers, I applaud their decision to lean more heavily into reader revenue. Subscriptions better align publisher and reader incentives, and they reduce publisher reliance on advertising, scale, and intermediary figures.
Unfortunately, the increasingly walled garden of the internet has made life hard for avid readers. Paying for multiple subscriptions simply becomes untenable at a certain point, especially as streaming services continue to splinter and proliferate at warp speed.
Plus, in many cases, it makes no sense for a given reader to subscribe to a given publication, simply because they want to read one of its published pieces.
One such moment, mundane in every other way, crystallized this sense of absurdity in mind. Following the winter storm in Texas, I clicked on an article from the Houston Chronicle, only for the publication to require I subscribe in order to read it. While I am proudly from Texas and admittedly love Houston, I do not live there, and it would therefore be ridiculous for me to subscribe to a local newspaper halfway across the country.
But, such is the system we have created: Newsrooms need substantial reader revenue to function, and they have turned, wholesale, to subscription technology as the sole means of achieving that end.
But there is a better way.
Enter the MAP
I originally modeled the concept of a MAP after “newsstand pricing,” in which passersby could purchase individual newspapers or magazines from free-standing kiosks.
These newsstands charged a slight premium for these publications — a loose magazine could cost $12, whereas with a subscription it would come out to $9 per month — but the convenience and lack of commitment made the small surcharge worth it.
Today, no such equivalent exists.
Over the years, well-intentioned media tinkerers have toyed around with micropayments, but the two concepts differ in a critical way: Most micropayment systems operate on a per-article basis.
As this Columbia Journalism Review article explains, not only do the economics of such a system make no sense, but the psychology of it fails as well.
So while micropayments would charge a reader for access to a single piece of content, a MAP would, similar to a newsstand price, give the reader a bundle of content for a fixed price.
For a fixed rate, one slightly higher than a subscription, a reader could pay, say, $9 and get one month of unlimited access to the publisher with absolutely no commitment following that period.
This accomplishes a number of things.
More for bang for your MAP
First, it gives readers an opportunity to pay a fair price for the journalism they want to consume, but they get far more in return than a single article.
In theory, they can read dozens or even hundreds of articles in a given month. In the process, they are developing an affinity (and “building habit”) for the publisher, all while generating ad revenue from every article they read.
When the month ends, their access and financial commitment stop, and the reader can reassess how valuable they found the material. Most likely they will not subscribe that first time, but a week later they could find themselves hitting that same paywall and re-upping their MAP.
Because the MAP would be strategically priced just several dollars more than a subscription, after a while a subscription would become the economical choice. After months of purchasing access “off the newsstand,” blossoming power users will see the subscription as the more price-efficient way to consume the content they have grown to love.
Or, if they never fully convert, then a subscription is simply not right for them. (Imagine that!)
Instead, they can continue making occasional one-off purchases, putting serious money in the pockets of publishers, even more in some cases than if they subscribed. Plus, as I mentioned before, they would be generating a not insignificant amount of advertising revenue in doing so.
Flipping the MAP
When a paywall goads me into ponying up for a subscription, without fail I make a mental note: “Cancel this subscription before the free trial ends” or “Make sure to unsubscribe immediately after you finish this article.”
Either way, by springing an unreasonably premature commitment on me, the publisher has forced me into a defensive mindset. Even if I do subscribe, this perspective poisons my experience, souring it from one of enjoyment to one of miserly penny-pinching. Suddenly the publication has to “prove its worth,” and if I go even a handful of days without reading it, then that is all the “proof” I need that I can live without it.
A MAP upends this dynamic.
Instead of approaching my purchase with an eye toward the door, I can enjoy my one month of access as a treat, like buying a magazine at an airport or supporting a local zine.
If I dislike the publication, no worries — I have paid my small price and never have to think about it again. I rest assured knowing that when my month of access ends, so does my financial obligation.
I have only collected the most anecdotal of data about this theory, but many of the journalists and readers I have spoken to cite commitment, not price, as one of their primary impediments to paying for news. With the commitment removed, more people would pay.
Publishers have cleaned up many of their slimiest tactics, but their reliance on subscriptions still gives off a sour stench from time to time.
I have seen the phenomenon described as “not waking the sleeping dog,” and I have written about “zombie” subscribers, but the concept is the same: publishers like subscriptions because they require only a one-time assent to purchase.
After that, whether the subscriber intends to or not, they continue paying until they unsubscribe (which many publishers, despicably, make difficult solely to discourage the act).
And while very few publishers intentionally lure in unwitting readers with the sole intent of trapping them in a loveless subscription, that is exactly what happens to a significant percentage of subscribers — at least 20%, according to Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center. Publishers will deny that they benefit from these forgetful subscribers, but they will continue to extract money from them even as they can see the account go unused for months, even years.
Of course, offering MAPs will not eliminate sleeper subscribers from the face of the internet, but they will eliminate the forced subscriptions that most often produce these accidental top customers.
If there is a clear fault to MAPs, I still cannot see it. They preserve publishers' two main revenue streams — subscriptions and advertising — and they unlock a massive third one. They empower readers and put more money in the pocket of publishers.
They eliminate the premature and unreasonable subscription prompts that publishers push on readers, while monetizing the vast swath of web browsers who are willing to pay but hesitant to make a binding commitment.
If you have thoughts as to the feasibility of this concept, please send me an email! And more importantly, if you have the means to help me test this idea, definitely send me an email. I need a big data set and the right tech stack to really see if MAPs hold water, but I would love to move beyond the theoretical and into the empirical.
So, who's willing to give MAPs a try?
Some good readin'
— I wrote about Axios Local, the frontrunner in the land-grab for local newsletters, and its rapid string of early successes. (Adweek)
— Newsrooms are starting to change how they cover crime beats and police reports, in response to the George Floyd murder. (Nieman Lab)
— Speaking of: It was one year ago that Derek Chauvin kneeled on a man's throat until he died. Has policing changed? (New York Magazine)
— While we're on the subject, if you like Philip K. Dick and racial profiling, this Chicago-based dystopian tale of moronic policing is right up your alley. (The Verge)
— Okay, one more, because I could post anti-cop articles all day: Read about the "private security force" that wants the power to arrest people for paying customers. (Vice)
— And then a beautiful one, to finish: Tequila shots with Einstein's brain, William S. Burroughs, and the voices of gods as a precursor to consciousness? This one has it all. (Bookforum)
Cover image: "The Persistence of Memory," by Salvador Dali