Monday, December 10, 2012

The Problem With the Paywall

CJR offers the case in favor of newspaper paywalls. But as the article indicates, " A paywall is not a magic solution". Newspapers have experienced a drastic change in the way news is distributed and consumed, and although a well-designed paywall may help make up some of the lost revenue there's no going back to the way things were.

The problem is, people don't have unlimited time, attention and money. If you put content behind a paywall you reduce your audience, and if you don't get enough people to subscribe you can reduce or lose your relevance. With free online news, many people have become accustomed to obtaining information from sources they would not have consulted prior to the rise of the Internet, and many of the local sources of news coverage have crumbled or collapsed. But the person who might have once purchased a newspaper subscription may think twice about buying subscriptions to multiple online news sources, even if the net cost is lower. It's not just that the nature of the expenditure is different, and irrational though it may be it can feel different to have somebody deliver a tangible newspaper to your doorstep as opposed to browsing a newspaper website. It's that people can only process so much information.

Also, once behind a paywall the experience of reading news online is changed. If you use news aggregator sites, you are apt to favor the sources that are free or to which you already subscribe. If you try to change reader behavior - "Start at our site", or "Get your news through our app" - you're likely to trigger more frustration than satisfaction.

I have a ridiculous number of channels available as part of my cable subscription, most of which I never watch, don't care about, and wouldn't miss. If cable subscribers had to subscribe to them individually, many would go out of business. But the companies that sponsor those channels get a small fee each month, so that I can read their content. That seems like a sensible model for media companies - work through internet service providers, or perhaps through operating system developers, and work out a licensing scheme. Let people pick the media packages they want, paying a single fee to the provider, and thereby get access to "behind the paywall" content for the news companies in their package.

When I look at the few successful paywalls at large media companies, I can't help but think of the handful of cable channels that were once able to profit from individual subscriptions. I suspect that the future lies in packages.

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