Twitter's dying. Time to drop the news paywalls | Opinion

Twitter's dying. Time to drop the news paywalls

Social media users are now dispersed across multiple 'Twitter killers,' creating silos and spreading misinformation for free. Journalists need a way to compete.

| Updated on: Jul 14 2023, 21:02 IST
Threads vs Twitter: Instagram's game-changing rivalry unveiled
Hindustan Time Tech
Threads is a new app, built by the Instagram team, for sharing text updates and joining public conversations. You log in using your Instagram account and posts can be up to 500 characters long and include links, photos, and videos up to 5 minutes in length.
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We now have Bluesky, Mastodon, Spill and Spoutible, but the it thing at the moment is Meta Platforms Inc.’s Threads. (REUTERS)

Numerous social media platforms are popping up, vying to replace Twitter as the preeminent text-based microblogging and social networking platform.

We now have Bluesky, Mastodon, Spill and Spoutible, but the it thing at the moment is Meta Platforms Inc.'s Threads, which surpassed 100 million users in its first five days thanks to its Instagram ties. Many of us are either getting swept up in the excitement of whatever new app is launching or rolling our eyes after hearing about whatever new “Twitter killer” is on the block.

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News leaders cannot afford to merely join either camp. They should use this moment to strategize how to compete with a shaky social media landscape that continues to offer “news” and other content for free.

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At the top of publishers' list needs to be new subscription policies. While news organizations need money to operate and sustain themselves in an era of declining advertising revenue, they need to rethink their approach to paywalls. There seems to be a subscription for everything nowadays, and studies show that consumers are experiencing fatigue with the whole concept.

More than half of the participants in a 2022 Kearney Consumer Institute consumer research survey wanted to spend less than $50 a month on subscriptions. Of the respondents, 61% had no news subscriptions, 26% paid for one or two subscriptions, 10% had three or four and 3% had five or more.

To cut costs, many consumers have relied on free trials and cheap promotions from digital news organizations. But what happens when the time runs out on those deals? As cost-of-living expenses and layoffs increase, subscribers have to decide which services are worth paying for. Respondents to Reuters Institute's 2019 Digital News survey helped to paint a clear picture of what would get voted off the island first.

When asked what online service they would choose if they could have only one for the next year, only 12% selected news compared with 28% who would pursue video streaming and 31% who would select nothing. This year's report found that nearly half of Americans surveyed canceled or renegotiated their news subscriptions recently.

The numbers show how an overreliance on paywalls could deprive us of a common frame of reference that legacy media once cultivated in their mission to serve the public. Subscriptions may also reaffirm preexisting views and promote partisanship, as people are likely to shell out every month only to sources they agree with.

To be clear, it's probably unlikely that a staunch right-wing reader would go searching for the content of a left-leaning paper or vice versa. But wouldn't it be nice to point someone with an opposing view to an article that proves your point – without a pop-up asking them to pay for it?

Responding to this moment will require publishers to experiment with options like micropayments (small pay-as-you-go fees for each article), lowering paywall prices (a fan favorite) and eliminating them during important news events such as elections, significant developments in war and natural disasters.

To engage their audiences and expand their readership, some news organizations offer free content on social media, such as videos that help promote a particular article or briefly discuss an event. This marketing strategy makes sense, considering the important role social media plays in our digital media consumption, but it needs to be bolstered.

Using more gift links that provide a particular article for free when it's clicked on from a social media post is one way. It helps bring engagement back to the news website instead of just keeping it on social media. Consumers also need to be met where they are. Pew surveys from 2022 found that half of American adults said they regularly get their news often or sometimes on social media, but nearly 70% of journalists flocked to Twitter for work while only 13% of US adults said they got their news there. Facebook came in at No. 1, with 31% of people going there for news. YouTube was second with 22%. But only 52% and 14% of journalists used those platforms, respectively.

Moreover, adults younger than 30 are nearly as likely to trust the information they consume on social media sites as the information they receive from national news outlets. Continuing to invest more in social media managing teams that understand the algorithms of different platforms and can best position newsrooms to have a far reach will be critical.

And when we think about solutions, we can't leave out the backbone of a lot of national reporting: local newsrooms. A scarcity of free options on the national level exacerbates the problem of news deserts growing across the country as smaller publications shut down. Extending tax credits to declining news operations has received a lot of attention in the last couple of years. Whether or not you agree with the government stepping in to save this industry, we should all be alarmed by its near extinction.

Equally as worrisome is the mass exodus of Twitter users dispersed among different platforms, possibly promoting new echo chambers and social media silos — a perfect storm for the spread of even more misinformation. It is premature to proclaim Threads the new town square because of how fickle the social media landscape can be, but it's not too early for news leaders to meet this moment head-on. They might already be late.

David A. Love is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

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First Published Date: 14 Jul, 21:01 IST