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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Media that were once free or easily accessible — including news websites, podcasts, TV shows and games — rushed to get behind paywalls during the pandemic.

Why it matters: This accelerating trend is carving the internet into many niche audiences, Balkanizing our collective media diets.

  • Just as cable introduced a paid layer to television in the 1980s, the internet's paid layer is taking shape 40 years later.

Driving the news: New data from Piano, a company that specializes in publisher subscriptions, finds that news publisher paywalls took off in 202o and have seen sustained gains since.

  • According to Piano SVP Michael Silberman, the rate at which users saw a paid offer or were asked to pay for content on a news website doubled during COVID.
  • Publicly reported subscription numbers confirm that trend. For the first time last year, newspapers made more money from subscriptions than from advertising, according to Pew Research Center.

The big picture: Users are running into paywalls across a range of media, discovering they must now pay for content that was once free.

  • In addition to news sites, readers must also pay to read individual writers who are leaving established news organizations for independent writing platforms like Substack, Ghost and Twitter's Revue.
  • A cable subscription will no longer get you access to most of your favorite shows — you’ll need to shell out for a smattering of different streaming services.
    • Since March 2020, the number of consumers who said they are willing to pay for five or more streaming services increased from 9% to 16%, according to data from Magid's latest Video Entertainment Study. Fewer people said they were willing to spend money on just one service.

Even podcasts, traditionally the most open and freely available media via RSS feeds, are moving behind paywalls.

  • Apple and Spotify both added subscription podcast features this year, competing with Wondery, which was recently purchased by Amazon, and Luminary.
  • Spotify has spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying for exclusive rights to a number of podcasts, including Alex Cooper's "Call Her Daddy," Dax Shepard's "Armchair Expert," and "The Joe Rogan Experience."

Cloud gaming, the adult entertainment platform OnlyFans, even car features like heated seats — all are relying on a subscription model.

Be smart: There's no clear consensus among experts about whether this fragmentation is a net good or bad for society.

  • "It is in some cases making some content less accessible, but I think there's still a huge amount of free content that's accessible. So is society being adversely affected by this? I think the resounding answer is no," said Jessica Lessin, CEO and founder of The Information, a high-end subscription news service.
  • "Without subscription models, huge swaths of important public information simply wouldn’t be produced."

Others argue polarization will accelerate as like-minded consumers pay to read their favorite writers and it will be harder for content to escape that ecosystem.

  • "It's clear that mainstream quality media — whose audiences lean liberal — are definitely moving more and more toward paywalls especially at the national level," says Rodney Benson, chair of NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

Yes, but: All things free remain hugely popular online. Many paywalled products offer some free portions. And online advertising, which supports free services, shows no sign of stopping its growth.

The bottom line: The creation of the internet's paid layer may never crowd out free alternatives, but it threatens to leave society with even fewer shared reference points.

Go deeper

The anatomy of social media's mad-making machine

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Facebook and other social media companies didn't cause America's massive political divide, but they have widened it and pushed it towards violence, according to a report from New York University released Monday.

Why it matters: Congress, the Biden administration and governments around the world are moving on from blame-apportioning to choosing penalties and remedies for curbing online platforms' influence and fighting misinformation.

51 mins ago - World

U.S. raises ire of China and France with new global pact

President Biden at the White House during a virtual event Wednesday with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

China's D.C. embassy said Thursday in response to a new security pact between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia that the countries should "shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice," per the Australian Associated Press.

Why it matters: The AUKUS partnership is a warning to China's government as the Biden administration moves to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific, per Axios' Zachary Basu. It's also raised the ire of the French government, after the countries revealed the U.S. and U.K. would help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

3 hours ago - World

ICC authorizes full investigation into Duterte's deadly drugs war

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a nation address at the House of Representatives in Manila in July . Photo: Lisa Marie David/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The International Criminal Court (ICC) formally authorized on Wednesday an official investigation into alleged crimes against humanity during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.

Why it matters: Tens of thousands of people may have been killed in police drug operations in the Philippines since 2016, a United Nations report found last year.