It’s not difficult to find a metaphor to describe the predicament of publishers searching for a sustainable digital revenue model. With disappointing display advertising yields on one side and the difficulty of generating  paywall receipts on the other, talk of rocks and hard places is commonplace.

The nature of the publishing industry’s challenge is well known, but always bears repeating: Print revenues are falling while digital revenues are growing, but not quickly enough to close the gap.

According to the Newspaper Association of America, print advertising revenues fell for US newspapers by more than $30 billion from 2016 to 2014. Digital ad revenues rose over the same period, but only reached $3.50 billion last year. That’s a huge shortfall.

The story is similar in the UK, where although digital revenues are growing, they are still a minor part of publisher revenues: £214 million from a total of £1.37 billion in national newspapers in 2014; £174 million from a total £1,25 billion in regional newspapers; and £267 million from a total adspend of £993 million in magazines.

Publishing executives make themselves feel better with the industry mantra, ’print for profit, digital for growth’, but are they thinking hard enough about how to increase digital revenues? If print shrinkage and digital growth trends stay more or less consistent on the current costs base, it will take until the mid 2020s for newspaper publishers like Trinity Mirror and Johnson Press to get revenues back to what they are today.

And what if print disappeared over night? What if there was some kind of cosmic print Rapture where all the world’s printing presses and paper stock vanished. How would the publishing industry pay for itself?

As things stand, publishers would be forced to choose the rock or the hard place – an open ad supported publishing model, or a closed paywall model. The concern is that that neither of these approaches can deliver everything that a healthy publishing company need, especially with respect to growth.

The ad-supported model currently dominates. And on the face of it, lots of  readers generating lots of page views can generate lots of advertising revenue, just like the good old days in print. The problem is digital display doesn’t seem to be working like print did.

In the long-term, any kind of advertising-funded revenue growth requires more traffic or higher yields. But visitor numbers and the time they spend with online media are finite; and inventory oversupply, banner blindness, non-human ad views and the rise of the ad blockers, combined with the marketers natural instinct to push down prices, has seen online advertising yields plummet.

The alternative is the paywall, the digital equivalent of the newspaper or magazine subscription, where publishers lock down site content and require readers to pay for access. Again this is theoretically sound; publications know they can generate revenues from a loyal subscriber base. The problem is first and foremost converting readers who have enjoyed your publication online for free for years to forego all the free alternative information sources out there and start paying.

And even once you have your most regular readers signed up, it’s going to be difficult to get enough digital subscribers to pay the bills, and fill the new gap that has just opened up in your volume-driven display advertising business which disappeared with the introduction of your paywall.

Taking the helicopter view, it might seem like the publishing industry is left with Hobson’s choice. Neither of the two dominant digital revenue models can deliver the long-term digital revenue growth that publishers need to survive and scale beyond print.

But there is another way to manage the value exchange between the publisher and the audience, a third way, perfect for the developing attention economy and combining the benefits of open access with the value of a subscription business.

Solutions like the FreeWall® system, designed by ad-tech firm Rezonence, deliver evidence that an ad has been deployed, seen, understood and remembered. The technology grants readers access to premium content in return for answering questions or viewing videos, building a meaningful, and measurable, brand experience.

This type of engagement-based third way allows publishers and advertisers to leave behind discredited page view metrics and focus on the complete accountability of cost per human interaction, individual engagement with interactive ads.

The Freewall network already covers more than 55 percent of the UK publishing market, including publishers like The Telegraph, Haymarket, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror. And growing interest in this human-centric approach to brand messaging isn’t hard to understand; it guarantees 100 percent viewability, delivers insightful audience data, improves recall of advertising messages, all combining to improve advertising yields.

Also, it keeps content  free, free to access and free of the intrusive banner advertising that the Internet has finally had enough of.

Image courtesy of Images Money via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.