After coronavirus, will a new online media economy emerge?

14 Apr 2020

Image: © Alex Ruhl/

The crisis currently facing online media has not been brought on by Covid-19 but exacerbated by it. As with previous threats, the industry will have to adapt to survive, writes Elaine Burke.

I’m 33 years old so, yes, I was part of the Napster generation. As tech-savvy teens there was little we couldn’t or wouldn’t pirate, no matter how much the anti-piracy ads pleaded with us. Now, for whatever reason, the most ardent pirates I come across are dads. Dads just love revealing their many ways to work around paying for their media consumption.

But these days, when someone tells me about the latest dodgy download that will give me free access to music or movies, I don’t really see the appeal. My old computers were riddled with viruses thanks to my seedy piracy past, but all that was done in the context of little to offer in terms of on-demand online media.

Future Human

I now have subscriptions to Netflix, Spotify, Sky Go, Disney+, Wired, The New York Times and likely some more I’ve forgotten about. Between them I have access to more media than I can possibly consume. That’s not to say I never run up against a wall – I have a long list of films and TV shows I want to see that aren’t available via any of my subscriptions. But this is not even close to something I would define as ‘a problem’.

‘The shuttering of local and specialist media sources in the early days of the pandemic has been interpreted by many as the canary in the coal mine, but the truth is this industry has been having difficulty breathing for some time now’

My past obsession with torrenting the entire back catalogue of a band I had only just heard of has long passed, and I still have a stash of unlistened-to MP3s that haunt me as a result. I now enjoy being able to pay for content. I’m a content producer and to be able to support others, because I’m in a privileged position where I can, is fulfilling.

Yet I know there are many – dads and otherwise – who will wilfully continue to pirate content online. Because, since the dawn of this internet age, the allure of free and unfettered online consumption has perpetuated.

Keeping up appearances

There is always some cost, however. In my pirating days, it was somewhat the corruption of my sense of morality but, even more so, the corruption of my computer by malware. These days there are other compromises made to access content for ‘free’, chief of which involves personal user data.

The ad industry supporting online media has added ever more complex layers of tracking and personalisation as the data trade has tried to keep up the appearance of free online content. The consequence was that all this data trading – rightfully – needed regulation, and that regulation added a new layer of friction. Instead of paywalls, users are now typically put behind a data wall. Pay with consent upon entry.

In one way you could see this as consumers’ refusal to pay for online content turning themselves into the product. But that glosses over one of the key compromises users make to have access to on-demand online media, and that’s ownership.

When we bought CDs, DVDs, newspapers and magazines, we owned them and could do pretty much what we wanted with them. We could access them on our own terms and our own schedule.

There is no digital media subscription model that replicates this successfully. Even Apple’s online media stores offer only a thinly veiled pretence of ownership. (And my own recent, failed, struggle to re-watch Lemonade, a title I purchased outright years ago, is evidence of this disconnect.)

Online media in crisis

Now is a difficult time for news media as we edge towards a global recession and advertising across the world bottoms out. In the online space, seemingly in contradiction with this stark outlook, audience figures are through the roof. Right now, online content is one of the limited methods people have to connect with the world around them. We’ve never had such rapt attention and we’ve never struggled so hard to feed it.

The boom some sites are currently experiencing is unprecedented and can’t be relied upon in the world after Covid-19. But that world will still be changed irrevocably and it’s hard to find an industry that won’t be affected.

The crisis facing news media, however, is more a culmination than a sudden shock. The shuttering of local and specialist sources in the early days of the pandemic has been interpreted by many as the canary in the coal mine, but the truth is this industry has been having difficulty breathing for some time now.

The current online media landscape has been shaped by dodgy downloaders as much as broadband infrastructure. Not only have consumer expectations been transformed, the contract between consumer and provider has been diluted. But now, publishers are turning to their readers for direct support.

We still demand a lot of online content to be free and frictionless, but we have to come to terms with the challenges of sustaining wholly ad-supported media indefinitely. A virtual tip jar could be the difference between putting content behind a wall and keeping it open. It could be what keeps the lights on for a small company. And it could be the bridge we need between producers and consumers of online media.

We may not own any of our digital media, but we can invest in it.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic