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The Paywall Problem

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I find most paywalls completely insidious. The concept is simple enough: allow users to view only a certain amount of content online before approaching them, pockets out-turned, for cash and denying them access to any more articles. But the implementation thus far has almost always been botched, and I remain unsure there is any truly effective way to implement such a system on a world wide web where the information you’re looking for is always readily available somewhere else.

Proponents of paywalls have a sensible reason for it; they want newspapers to make money. This is all well and good. They say that if the walls are not put into place, there will be no other viable business structure, and online journalism could implode. That’s possible, but unlikely.

Detractors of the walls say that they drive away traffic to other sites. They also criticize the idea of making people pay for content that is not hard to find other places. They are also skeptical of paywalls working period, given that they are notoriously easy to crack for anyone with menial knowledge of how the web works.

When the New York Times implemented theirs in March of last year, it cost $40 million and took more than a year to design. That paywall was bypassed in under 24 hours with a simple bookmarklet designed to make the Times’ java overlay not show up. That’s it.

This doesn’t mean that it cannot be done. The trick is in giving the people something worth paying for. I don’t believe the Times has succeeded here, the reason being (aside from the fact that their paywall system is a travesty) is 1) their tiered system and 2) the lack of extra benefits to subscribing.

The Times’ model is stupefyingly convoluted. Non-print subscribers have the option of subscribing to the web site and a smart phone app, the website and a tablet app (no smart phone access, but arbitrarily more expensive) or all three for even more money. But why does one have to choose? Why not have a flat rate for all mobile devices? It’s certainly more inviting (and convenient).

But a bigger problem is that people are paying for access to the same content they previously received for free. The Times’ has not given anyone any extra bang for their (substantial) buck. This is a grave mistake.

If a paywall is to be done, people have to be given some sort of premium content that was no available to them before. Conde´ Nast has done this well with my favorite magazine “The New Yorker.”

I pay $67 a year for 47 print issues of “The New Yorker.” With that comes complete access to an online backlog of issues, all built into a beautiful reader. This also includes a free tablet version that is delivered to my Nook Tablet.

What’s so great about that, you ask? Well, the digital versions are not simply the magazine thrown into a file format.Each digital issue of the New Yorker includes videos to accompany stories that play when you highlight them. For each poem (featured in the magazine every week), readers are given the wonderful option to hear the poet read their poems with a single click. There are slide shows of photos and other neat additions. I am nearly to the point of enjoying the digital edition more than the print one.

To implement a paywall successfully you must incentivize readers to pay, and you have to treat them fairly. While Conde´Nast is a magazine company, not a newspaper company, there’s no reason major news organizatons, with all the money at their disposal, could not churn out a comparable product.

This is how I would implement a paywall:

1) Emphasize premium content

Let people know they are getting something for their money aside from what they can get for free by bypassing a bookmarklet. If you go the extra mile, the readership will appreciate it.

2) Less options, more streamlining

 There’s no reason I should have to choose between receiving a subscription on my smart phone or tablet. This is 2012. All of these things are ubiquitous and used interchangeably. People want to be able to put down their tablet, pick up their phone and pick up where they left off. That’s the way of the future.

3) Cents and Sensibility

 Pricing needs to be fair, and make consumers believe they are getting value. Full digital access to the Times is $35 every four weeks, coming just under $500 a year. For that much, I think I’d stick to the Huffington Post. For free.

Paywalls don’t have to be so complicated, so long as you give people a product that they really want- a product that is worth the (reasonable amount) of money and make them think that they are part of the elite (everyone wants to be special). This is simple. There’s no need to over-complicate.

Journalism is about pith. There’s no reason paywalls can’t be, too.


Written by kolchak

February 13, 2012 at 5:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I’m looking forward to the paywall discussion when we get to it in class. I’m impressed with the level of detailed thought you’ve given this issue. It’s a good issue to know a lot about for an aspiring journalist.


    February 18, 2012 at 10:56 am

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