Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

Rethinking the way we write for the paywall age

Digital journalism formats keep evolving. They way articles are written needs to adapt, too.

In “One thousand and one nights” a brutal Sasanian king keeps marrying women only to execute them the next morning. Until, that is, Scheherazade finds a story-telling technique that trumps his bloodlust – each night she ends the story at a moment of tension, ensuring the king decides to give her another night to finish the tale. 

The cliffhanger has since become a common solution for creators looking to “hook in” audiences. It’s part of a range of plot devices used – in TV, comics or news media – to better engage audiences and keep them coming back for more.

But the techniques we deploy depend on the format of the content itself. You can’t use the same approach to a print book as you would in, say, a live play. One of the biggest current format trends is the appearance of paywalls. Digital journalism has to adapt its writing style accordingly.

From a golden print age to the horrors of clickbait

Cliffhangers and many other plot devices first gained wide popularity with Victorian serial magazines. Printed in weekly episodes, they would feature the likes of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. The technique was later expanded by fantasy and sci-fi magazines. Characters would find themselves surrounded by enemies or marooned on an inhospitable planet. 

In both cases, the logic was simple: people would buy a magazine one week, so the writers and the editors had to find a way to ensure they would buy the next one. You just had to find out if your favourite character made it out of whatever predicament they had found themselves in. 

Soap operas and superhero comics used the same approach, as did the original Doctor Who. Viewers would be sure to come back for the next episode, ensuring a long-running series would consistently gather steam (and audiences).

Journalism was governed by its own rules but also needed some structure to get readers hooked. Hence most articles would begin with a lead and a nut graph. Between the two, they would typically provide some juicy detail and explain why an article was interesting and/or mattered to the readers. 

But they also served a different purpose than the cliffhangers of serial publications. The goal was to explain the whole story in a few paragraphs, in case the reader lacked time to enjoy the full piece. Axios built a huge business on taking this to the next level – the ultra-synthesized inverted pyramid structure means every next paragraph is less critical than the previous one.

This craftsmanship (almost) came to an end with the rise of digital ads. Forced to compete for eyeballs, many online publications would do anything to get that click. “You won’t believe what happened next” and other tropes ended up polluting cyberspace.

The new reader revenue paradigm

Past years have been marked by the unstoppable rise of paywalls. This has greatly helped publishers – finally reversing a seemingly endless trend of falling revenues. Some have deplored the end of the age of unlimited access (or that misinformation roams free), but it has also brought publications closer to readers and generated money to do good journalism. 

Paywalls have not entirely defeated “clickbait-y” writing, and it still makes sense to A/B test headlines. But paywalls also mean that publishers now need to invest in quality, making sure that audiences feel satisfied with a piece of content. This is the best way to ensure they will share it with friends and start trusting the publisher’s brand.

But it also creates a new challenge for creators. How do you hook in a user, explain why the story matters, showcase quality and what your piece will deliver – all without revealing too much? And do so ideally within a few paragraphs? 

This is a daunting challenge, but certainly one worth investing in for the future of journalism. 

Journalists need to put in more time to create better content, even if that means reducing the overall output. The good news is that evidence shows that most audiences respond favourably to publishers reducing the amount of content they put out. We are all overloaded as it is.

But tech and data are also part of the solution. More emphasis is needed on analyzing metrics like time spent on an article, or the Financial Times’ quality-reads

We also need to solve the problem of “what got the reader/ viewer/ listener to unlock?” Classic paywall models continue to struggle to understand the journey that finally got a user to become a subscriber (was it the first, the last, or some middle article in a series of 5 pieces that pushed them over the edge?). 

More work on the article level is needed, to better understand how users interact with content. More efforts are also needed to support creative journalists, to provide them with actionable feedback on their work and help their great work reach the broadest set of appreciative, paying audiences.

by Jakub Parusinski

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.