Why the Chaser is going to put up a paywall

Despite the headline ‘Online Writer Dies Of Exposure‘ taking centre stage on the wall of our office, over the last 8ish years The Chaser’s online team have operated on the incredibly naive philosophy that we should operate as a public broadcaster, on the understanding that while it might not make us rich, the importance of trying to balance out the hundred or so news outlets blasting propaganda for Australia’s billionaires was worth taking a hit to the hip pocket for.

By and large we feel we’ve been reasonably successful on that front, both on the ‘not making a profit’ side of things, but more importantly in dragging the overton window of Australia’s public discussion slightly away from the ‘trans boogeymen are turning your kids into vegan muslims‘ cesspool of ‘journalism’ and slightly more in the direction of ‘hey maybe we should consider doing something about this climate apocalypse thing‘.

Okay so the latter is still quite controversial, but we’re making baby steps.

Recently, however, things have started to go a bit south with the whole ‘free internet’ thing.

First there was Google and the never-ending stream of ad sellers who offer to take a mere 40% of our website profits in order to provide you with an endless stream of **Desperate Singles**, Definitely Not Gambling Opportunities, and SHOCKING PHOTOS OF CELEBRITIES where You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Now!

But while these ads rapidly chipped away at the reputation of countless trusted news sites around the world, at least they were making good money, right? Well, not really. For a million people reading a story, we’d scrape in maybe one or two thousand dollars, and if we’re being honest, we were not reaching a million readers most months. Which quickly leads us to problem two: Zuckerberg ruining everything.

Around the late 2010s two big things happened with the magical click generator we all knew as Facebook. The first – the rise of fake news and the resulting risk of ‘laws’ suddenly applying to Silicon Valley – saw the world’s biggest social media company panic and suddenly switch off the gold taps that were until then driving millions of people to news sites every day. Overnight, services like Buzzfeed, Vice, Clickhole and Upworthy that had defined new media disappeared from people’s feeds, and as ad clicks dried up, so came the mass layoffs. The second blow, Facebook’s infamous ‘pivot to video’ saw companies invest heavily in producing video content in an attempt to recapture their lost audiences, only to find out Facebook had actually been faking video views by the order of millions, pushing many newsrooms out of business altogether when these ghost audiences failed to deliver any ad revenue.

Despite all this, The Chaser’s newsroom continued along unfazed. Working for free out of a freezing carpark, we didn’t have any money to lose in the first place, and we were lucky enough to have an audience which was willing to chip in and start throwing us a few dollars every month to keep the carpark’s fluorescent sensor light on. And so we powered through, growing our Twitter audience, joining Reddit, Instagram, and even TikTok in our mission to outcompete Murdoch’s stranglehold on the country’s media.

But unfortunately while you can beat one dumbass billionaire some of the time, you can’t beat all the dumbass billionaires all the time, and it turns out social media is rife with them.

Sensing a decline in the essential ‘coolness’ that keeps young kids joining social networks (and those ever important red lines going up for shareholders) the world’s richest cyborg Mark Zuckerberg continued to turn down the taps at Facebook, demoting ‘news articles’ further in people’s feeds, lest somebody accidentally click a link and spend some time outside the Zuckerverse. Instead Instagram became the new shiny thing – a brilliant image-only platform where the lack of links or buttons meant there was no risk of anyone ever leaving the app. Instead creators had the opportunity to become an ‘influencer’ – where you beg brands to give you free stuff in exchange for the privilege of tricking young women into purchasing laxatives weight loss tea. Needless to say, we were not flush with offers on this front.

Nevertheless in spite of social media being an unprofitable hellscape, we have chugged along, even as TikTok attempted to pay us in literal popcorn, and Reddit threw up every hurdle imaginable when we asked if maybe they could at least credit us when our headlines were being regularly plastered across their site. Hell, even Elon Musk’s plan to charge everybody $20 for the right to read some of the worst opinions on the planet didn’t particularly phase us. We’ve been kicked off that site plenty of times before and only came back more determined. In fact, despite the bruising weekly battles we fight behind the scenes just to keep our stories from being banned by the big American tech companies who wouldn’t know satire if it was clearly labeled in our about page, it isn’t social media that’s going to bring us to our knees.

What’s really put the nail in the coffin of The Free Chaser, is a little thing called GPT.

Some of you may be familiar with this AI tool, others may have not yet come across it, but all you really need to know is that it’s going to change the world as we know it, and that’s putting it lightly.

What the boffins over at OpenAI are currently working on in their high tech lab is, in layman’s terms, effectively creating God.

All day, every day, they are pouring the sum of human knowledge into a pool of very smart algorithms, mixing it around, and slowly watching as this artificial silicon brain learns to do things better than most humans can do. Already Google has sounded the panic sirens inside their offices. Despite sitting on their own arguably even more advanced AIs in their labs, Google has until now had the good sense to know what a branding disaster it would be to unleash an all seeing, all knowing AI on an unsuspecting world, and as such they have largely limited their use to simply causing internal staff to have existential meltdowns. But now the cat is out of the bag and the masses are flocking to the new ChatGPT to ask the giant artificial brain their questions, leaving Google’s quaint ‘web indexer’ looking like a typewriter in the age of the iPhone.

But it’s not even ChatGPT that is the problem. It’s what’s on the horizon. We at the Chaser are no strangers to AI, and in fact we’re probably one of the most technologically advanced newsrooms on the planet. We’ve had AI baked into our editorial process since as way back as 2016, generating images, cropping out backgrounds, suggesting gags, synthesising voices, deepfaking celebrities. You name it, we’ve done it, compiled it, sworn at it, and then recompiled it a few hundred times more. But our ability to use this tech to our advantage only puts us in a better position to officially say that we, and the rest of the media that drive today’s free web, are absolutely fucked.

ChatGPT is currently a fairly static piece of code. It doesn’t ‘learn’ as people would, it doesn’t browse the web looking for answers, it doesn’t index up to the minute news, and it doesn’t do a lot of things that would be cool but dangerous if its owners took the guard-rails off. But even now, it is a more competent writer of satire than most of the people we’ve worked with. That includes myself, and I’ve been writing news satire for 16 years.

If ChatGPT can outcompete our entire writers’ room in about five years of learning, without any specialisation, without being able to read social media on the fly, with significant restrictions on what it can currently do, and most importantly without a need to eat or sleep, the question then has to be asked – how advanced is it going to be in another five years?

The next generation of GPT, if the rumours are to be believed, will be able to ‘learn’ on the fly. And it’s only a matter of time before it, or one of its competitors, can start crawling the open web. At that stage, free, open, websites will quickly become little more than training tools for these giant algorithms to scoop up in full, process, and then start spitting out carbon copies – as illustrators and artists have already started discovering.

It’s a battle we can never win, the tide of technology will always march on, leaving countless people jobless in its wake. Just like a hundred clogs couldn’t stop mechanical looms, and the freedom to take half a day off while waiting on office post wasn’t enough to decentivise e-mail (we really fucked up on that one guys), the rise of AI in the creative space is just something we’re going to have to get used to.

But one thing we don’t have to do is feed these learning machines our content for free. And that’s why, fairly soon, The Chaser will be closing off our archives and social media feeds after years of providing free content to you all. We’re sorry it’s come to this – but it sure was fun while it lasted.

If you’d like to get a jump start, you can sign up to become a member of our site now for free – before the walls go up, and you’ll likely be spared from having to pay a subscription fee. Or better yet you could not be a cheap ass and sign up as a paying subscriber now to help us weather the storm. Unfortunately, if we’re being honest, at some point in the next few years this site will probably become subscription only, where fans will get to enjoy Chaser content, and everyone else can enjoy whatever the robots churn out. They’ll probably be funnier anyway.

Oh, and if you’re sitting there thinking ‘just how bad could this robot revolution really be?’ – it’s probably worth knowing that one half of this article was written by an AI. See if you can spot which half.

So before we sign off on the free web, we’d just like to say a big thankyou to everyone who has shared, liked, commented, tweeted, upvoted, or even just chuckled with us through the wild social media age – we’ve loved being in the trenches with you and it’s been a privilege to bring so many of you laughter through some pretty terrible times.

Now here’s to the future – may the machines have mercy on us all.


Cam Smith,

Chaser Editor (for now)

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