The business of journalism has been going through an evolutionary phase for a couple of years now. It’s currently in a sort of paradox.

Wherever you look for help the answer to securing your media’s sustainability invariably seems to be reader revenue. Get your audience to support you, set up a membership or lock your articles behind a paywall. There are many variations, but everyone seems to agree – the ad-supported model is not sustainable in the long run.

That’s where we run into the current paradox. On the one hand there is a clear (but by no means easy) path forward. On the other hand, reports show the overall percentage of people ready to pay for online news remains low.

The 2021 Digital News Report finds that across 20 countries surveyed 17% paid for any online content in the last year. That’s despite significant efforts from publishers to educate or convince audiences.

This number keeps growing. But many media managers are wary of betting the house on such a low willingness to pay. Moreover, the report suggests it’s usually a winner-takes-most situation, as even most paying people have just one digital news subscription.

This all makes for a relatively gloomy outlook, at least from the overall industry perspective. 

But winds are shifting and the idea of direct monetization of content is finding support from unlikely quarters. In particular, gaming and a pivot among social media platforms from pure ad-based models are normalizing paying for exclusive content or directly supporting your favorite creators. 

With some luck, this might also normalize paying for news. Let me explain.

More from The Fix: Rethinking the way we write for the paywall age

The big social platform pivot to paying for content

Facebook has Stars and Bulletin; Twitter has Super Follows, Ticketed Spaces and Revue. Instagram will have Exclusive Stories. Everywhere you look social platforms are building solutions to help creators monetize content.

The latest to join the game is Instagram with its Exclusive Stories, according to The Verge. Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram previously said they were looking at a variety of options to help creators earn a living.

Exclusive Stories will reportedly be very straightforward, creators will have a subscribe button on their profiles and anyone who subscribes will get access to member-only, exclusive content. If that reminds you of the OnlyFans business model or media paywalls, you are not alone.

Many have criticized social networks for creating an environment that works well for huge influencers and celebrities but forgets about niche communities and the “creator middle class”.

Li Jin, a venture capitalist, wrote an essay titled The Creator Economy Needs a Middle Class. In it, she argued that wealth on social networks is concentrated at the top and they need to allow creators to capitalize on superfans. 

The logic being that previous ad-based models rewarded scale and reach. Meanwhile, direct fan payment allows to monetize a smaller but highly-engaged superfan base. As in any good economic system, a vibrant middle class is key to system success.

Instagram is not alone in searching for the right tools. Twitter recently introduced Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces. Both features will bring creators direct payments for exclusive access. Also, don’t forget Twitter’s acquisition of Revue – the newsletter tool with built-in monetisation of paid newsletters.

There is also Facebook’s answer to Substack and Revue called Bulletin. It started with a few selected authors, but should eventually become more open.

Also, Facebook has Facebook Stars which is a feature that allows creators to monetize their stream. Viewers can buy Stars and send them to while a creator is streaming, for every Star they receive, Facebook will pay them $0.01 USD.

These are just a few of the latest features – either recently announced or coming soon. What they all have in common is the purpose of serving direct fan monetisation. 

The macro-impact is that a growing number of people will come in contact with paid content. The more networks introduce such features, the more creators try to make them work. In turn, this drives ever greater awareness and provides “social proof” about paying for digital content.

More from The Fix: In the future, all social networks will have built-in monetization for creators

Don’t forget about gaming

It isn’t only creators that are driving awareness for paying for online goods and services. If we consider the whole media industry, gaming is by far the biggest part of the pie and has been growing steadily over the years.

Fortunately, more and more outlets are realizing that gaming is mainstream (at least for the younger generations) and cover the industry as such.

But in the context of this column it is much more important to look at the tens of millions of users for games like Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft and others that are free to play but generate hundreds of millions of dollars quarterly by offering in-game purchases, passes, special items or even subscriptions.

With Microsoft, Google, Amazon and even Facebook betting the future of gaming will be streamed over the cloud for a monthly subscription, hundreds of millions of teens will grow up with the notion that paying for services online is normal.

More from The Fix: How data is transforming Esports and the media covering it

The next generation will be ready pay, but your offer has to be compelling 

That’s only the first step when considering willingness to pay for news (ability to pay and habit for paying for digital goods). The next step is crafting a proposition that will convince people. Also, this generation will have to mature first to want to pay for trustworthy and good journalism.

Now, just to make things a little more complicated, the recent uptick in the creator economy and the interest of social networks in providing tools for it is being limited by the gate-keepers such as Apple and Google.

The main platform in 2021 is mobile and the gates to mobile are mainly through apps which are by most downloaded via App Store or Google Play. Transactions of digital goods mean Apple and Google take a 30% cut.

There has been some reduction of the fees happening. But for now creators still lose 30% of whatever direct payment they get via in-app purchases. That’s a hefty tax.

To complicate things even more, the Digital News Report provides examples of markets where less people pay for news because there are still free sources to get news from and you could argue there will always be those as most countries have and continue funding public media.

If anything, we need more research done in this area and especially aimed at Gen Z and Gen Alpha digital consumption, behaviours and attitudes towards paying for digital goods and services such as gaming fees or support for their favorite creators.

More from The Fix: Are free subscription trials more effective than paid ones?

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash