Someone asked last week for a summary of online articles about the pros and cons of paywalls. Nothing is more relevant right now in Texas community journalism: Are our newspapers going to charge for access to their websites, or should they remain free in hopes that they will generate additional advertising revenue? There is no easy answer to this.
We know that the ethos of the Internet is that information should be free. And since Al Gore invented the Internet, that’s been the prevailing practice. Some news sites have implemented paywalls. Others have gone from free to paid and back to free. And there are many options in between those polar opposites.
The paywall concept seems to be working in a few places, and especially among some of what we call “niche” sites – websites that offer specialized information for limited audiences. Even such a well-known paid site as The Wall Street Journal can be considered a niche site because of its focus on specialized business coverage.
You’ve heard publishers claim that the best way to establish value is to put a price on the information. The price we impose on the online product becomes the value of that product, they say. But in a supply-and-demand economy, the seller does not establish value; the buyer does. Let’s say you want to sell your old Yugo, and you want it to be seen as a sought-after and valued purchase. So you price it at $50,000.
Good luck. If there’s such a thing as a Yugo collector, you may well get it. But if someone is just looking for a car, there are too many options out there.
So if we expect consumers to pay for the online product, we have to offer something the consumer perceives as value (as opposed to something we think is valuable) and something that the consumer cannot obtain elsewhere. (In the paywall literature, that’s typically called “premium content.”)
And remember that “elsewhere” may not just be another newspaper or a news medium – it can be other online sites, blogs, and especially social networking. The most recent Pew study reported that 35 percent of respondents had a favorite news Web site, but of that number only 5 percent said they would be willing to pay if their “favorite site” erected a paywall.
Sounds like a blanket condemnation of paywalls, but that’s not what I intended. Instead, the point is just that the whole paywall issue is more complex than it seems.
So as you consider this issue, and your own decision about whether or not to put up a paywall, here are some considerations. The following five articles are examinations (all written in readable style) of the paywall issue. There give options and they bring up perspectives you need to consider.
Whatever you do, do this first — make a pot of coffee and lock yourself in your office and read through these articles. You may still choose the paywall route, but you can say you’ve looked at some of the important options. Here they are:
- Fees for online news yet to succeed: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_world_business/view/1071443/1/.html
- Five ways to monetize the future of the news media: http://mediachannel.org/blog/2010/05/5-ways-to-monetize-the-future-of-news-media/
- Pitfalls of the paywall: http://mediachannel.org/blog/2010/05/5-ways-to-monetize-the-future-of-news-media/
- Newspapers experiment with charging for premium content: /blogs/whatsnew/newspapers-experiment-charging-premium-c
- On newspapers and paywalls: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-mcquaid/on-newspapers-and-paywall_b_211508.html