As the final holdouts cave on paywalls, it's a big moment for content entrepreneurs

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 26, 2013

From The News Desk

Raise your hand if you still believe that quality news should be available for free online? Okay, now keep your hand up if you actually run the business side of a news organization... Anyone? Hello?

What a weird time to be building a media company. Increasingly the "knock" on my business that I hear from larger digital-first companies is that the level of quality we produce is not possibly economically viable -- indeed, that our increasing quality is actually a business negative. The logical inverse of that is that these players are actually making a business decision to embrace -- nay, demand -- shit quality from their teams. Seriously.

Meanwhile, the last holdouts of the old guard who cling to the mantle of quality at near insane costs are finally caving to the world of the metered paywall. Last week, The Washington Post finally -- finally -- gave in, and the trend appears to be spreading to the UK, where the Telegraph has just announced it's doing the same. (For anyone who cares, so is the San Francisco Chronicle.)

More than a decade into the shakeout of media, at least there is a clear and distinct line between old and new media. What the groups on either side of that line share is a tacit admission that online ads simply don't work when it comes to journalism, at least in the current incarnation. And, I suppose, they're sick of trying and hoping for alternatives.

As someone with 15 years of experience on the editorial side and a scant year-plus experience on the business side of media, I find myself somewhere in the middle -- as, I imagine, do other recent content upstarts like the Verge and BuzzFeed.

I refuse to accept a reality where users can't expect and demand quality. YouTube comments aside, readers are simply not all idiots. But likewise, I don't see why it takes a 400-person newsroom to deliver quality. And that's really what the grudging acceptance of paywalls is about -- a reluctance to make deep cuts to legacy and storied newsrooms.

So, that's it? We're just all out of innovation and discipline as an industry?

As important as the last decade of blogging has been; the most important 10 years for media may be the ones in front of us. Like Bryan Goldberg, I believe we're about to see a wave of content companies being created that stand on the shoulders of the blogs and new media properties that came before. Unlike many of those that started as hobbies, many of these will be run by professionals and funded by VCs -- even ones who've typically shied away from content in the past. Frankly the opportunity is just too big, and the incumbents are, well, just too bad.

Content companies share some commonalities with the fashionable rush to enterprise software. It's easier to get revenues early, and once you do, a company with a good editorial team and good audience is frequently worth something to someone. The question is how long it'll take, how much money it'll cost, and the patience to build something large. Only a handful have cracked the $100 million range.

Similarly, the first wave of software-as-a-service companies had issues scaling and exiting. The largest software companies in the world still sell it the old fashioned way -- same as with media. But like media, most assume that's changing. Slowly, but it's changing.

Contrast both to the waning interest in consumer Internet where many things look like they "could" be a $1 billion dollar company, but winning tends to be all or nothing, and scale has to come before revenues.

That said, Bryan's and my companies couldn't have more different approaches on how to get there, and both of us have differences with players like the Verge or BuzzFeed. PandoDaily has almost nothing in common business-wise with Paul Carr's NSFWCORP. But that's less because we all disagree -- and more because there are just so many different types of media opportunities on the table right now.

We will not all win. Content is brutally hard. It's the ultimate iterative startup where each day's output determines your future. A brutal, brutal slog. But when you are starting now, with no baggage of the "new" or old media world, seeing clearly what's broken in both, the opportunity is just so great.

Someone will create the next 50-year media titan. Media is too important, and in aggregate there's too much money attached to it, even if it's not wisely being bought or sold now. And it seems everyone else in the new or old side of the business is just throwing in the towel, crushed under the weight of their expensive newsroom or page view legacies.

It's not that media is any more broken now than it was ten years ago, but the ramifications of just how broken it is are coming home to roost. If the old media world has settled on the metered paywall as the answer, that's good news for digital. It's a bandaid and an augmenter to revenues at best -- even for those who have had the most success at it like the New York Times.

The expectation that you don't have to pay for content is just too great on the Web. Even Netflix -- one of the most successful subscription companies on the Internet -- only has 23 million subscribers, and this after some 15 years of business in an industry as crowd-pleasing as TV and movies.

If paying anything is the future of news, news is going to be a smaller industry. And if the free world is all about aggregation and low standards? Well, there's a big gap in the middle where someone will win and win big. It's when these industries look the most screwed -- when everyone seems to have given up -- that real leaders are born.

And we couldn't look more screwed right now. Hallelujah!