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All-you-can-eat media is our fault and our problem

Every time we decide to pay for a multi-billion dollar streaming service, every time we hit a paywall and turn away, every time we grumble about the cost of a magazine subscription, we’re casting a vote for the future of content.

And right now, the tally isn’t looking good.

We have created a world where investigative journalism has become a rarity, where local news is all but extinct, and where the music industry is dominated by a handful of algorithm-friendly artists. Where independent filmmakers struggle to find funding, where niche podcasts can’t sustain themselves, and where in-depth analysis has been replaced by clickbait headlines.

To understand how we’ve arrived at this precarious position, we need to rewind the clock to the early days of the internet. Remember when “information wants to be free” was the slogan of the digital age? It was a bloody lovely idea, born from the utopian vision of a world where knowledge and creativity could flow unimpeded across borders and social strata.

And for a while, it seemed like this dream might become reality. Newspapers rushed to put their content online for free, hoping to cash in on advertising revenue. Musicians, reeling from the impact of file-sharing services like Napster, turned to platforms like MySpace to connect directly with fans. Bloggers and citizen journalists celebrated the democratization of media.

But as the years went by, cracks began to appear in this model. Advertising revenue proved insufficient to support quality journalism. Musicians struggled to make a living in a world where their work was expected to be free. The flood of content led not to a utopia of free information, but to a deluge in which discerning quality from noise became increasingly difficult.

Enter the age of the subscription. Pioneered by companies like Netflix and Spotify, this model promised a win-win solution. Consumers would get access to vast libraries of content for a low monthly fee, while creators would receive steady, predictable income. It seemed like the perfect compromise between the “information wants to be free”ideal and the economic realities of content creation.

And to the extent that it enriched the investors and non-creators who built these services, it worked. Netflix transformed the way we consume television and film. Spotify revolutionized the music industry. Similar models emerged for everything from journalism to podcasts to academic research.

But this solution came with a brutal consequence: it fundamentally altered our perception of what content is worth.

Think about it. For the price of a couple of lattes, you can access nearly every song ever recorded. For less than the cost of a single movie ticket, you can watch hundreds of films and TV shows. Is it any wonder, then, that when faced with a $10 monthly subscription for a single newspaper, many of us balk?

This perception is at the heart of our current content crisis. We’ve become accustomed to paying a flat, relatively low fee for an all-you-can-eat buffet of content. Anything that doesn’t fit this model - anything that asks us to pay more, or to make individual purchasing decisions - feels like an imposition.

But here’s the harsh truth: this model is not sustainable. For any type of content. And if we don’t reassess our willingness to pay for quality, we will keep losing it altogether.

Consider journalism. A robust, independent press is essential to a functioning democracy. It serves as a watchdog, holding power to account and bringing important issues to light. But quality journalism is expensive to produce. It requires skilled reporters, fact-checkers, editors. It often involves months of investigation, travel, and legal reviews.

Can all of this really be supported by a $10-20 monthly subscription?

Unlikely.

The math simply doesn’t add up.

And even if it did - readers still complain about there being any cost at all.

When I raised this point on Threads, the math presented to me was that the model doesn’t make sense because paying $20 a month for a single news publication’s entire monthly output is too much. People said they’d consider it if they could get 4 entire publications for that. Meaning that the“fair price” for a team of journalists, editors, photographers, etc., is $5 a month.

The result? Newsrooms shrinking. Local papers shuttering. Investigative teams being disbanded. The stories that aren’t being told - the local corruption scandals, the slow-burning environmental crises, the nuanced explorations of complex issues - represent a significant loss to our collective understanding of the world.

But it’s not just journalism that’s at risk. The music industry, despite the popularity of streaming services, is struggling with its own existential crisis. While top artists can still make a living, mid-tier and niche musicians often find it nearly impossible to sustain their careers.

The economics are sobering. An artist would need approximately 290,000 streams on Spotify each month to earn minimum wage. This calculation is based on Spotify’s average pay rate of $0.004 per stream and the U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, assuming a 40-hour work week. For context, a song with one million streams on Spotify typically generates between $3,000 to $5,000 in royalties.

And so we get a music landscape increasingly dominated by a small number of super-popular artists, with less room for experimentation, niche genres, and up-and-coming talent.

In film and television, the subscription model has led to an arms race for content. Streaming services, desperate to attract and retain subscribers, are pouring billions into original programming. But this has created a feast-or-famine dynamic. Big-budget spectacles and binge-worthy series and sequels get the green light, while smaller, more challenging projects struggle to find funding.

The message is clear: our current approach to valuing and paying for content is not working. It’s not working for creators, who struggle to make a living. It’s not working for society, which is losing out on important journalism and diverse cultural expressions. And in the long run, it’s not working for us as consumers, as we face an increasingly homogenized content landscape.

We complain about AI-generated content.

But we still don’t want to pay for human-created content.

So what’s the solution?

It starts with a fundamental re-evaluation of how we value content. We need to move away from the all-you-can-eat buffet mentality and start thinking more critically about what different types of content are worth - both to us personally and to society as a whole.

We need to stop seeing content as a commodity to be consumed as cheaply as possible, and start seeing it as a vital part of our cultural and informational diet - something worth investing in.

Yes, keep your Netflix subscription for entertainment. But also consider: what news sources do you rely on most? Which journalists or publications consistently provide value to you? Which musicians or podcasters enrich your life? These are the creators and organizations worth supporting directly.

This might mean subscribing to a newspaper, even if you don’t read every article. It might mean joining a Patreon for a favorite podcast, or buying albums from indie musicians you love. It might mean choosing to pay for a premium, ad-free version of a service you use frequently. Because make no mistake: every dollar we spend (or don’t spend) on content is a vote for the future of that content.

This doesn’t mean breaking the bank. We might budget for a gym membership to keep our bodies healthy. We choose to spend a bit more on quality food. And we can make conscious choices about our content consumption. Maybe it means one fewer takeout meal a month in exchange for a news subscription. Or forgoing a few lattes to support a favorite podcast.

The choices we make today will shape the content landscape of tomorrow. Do we want a world rich with diverse voices, in-depth reporting, and creative expression? Or are we content with a race to the bottom, where only the most broadly popular content survives?

If we continue down our current path, the consequences will be severe. We’re going to get exactly what we fucking deserve: a world where investigative journalism is extinct and the wealthy own the news. Where algorithms determine what music gets produced and what stories get told. Where independent voices are drowned out because they can’t make the economics work.

The next time you hit a paywall, or see a “support us” plea from a creator you admire, pause for a moment. Consider the value of what you’re being offered. Think about the work that went into creating it, the role it plays in your life and in society. And then ask yourself: what is this really worth?

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