The Beneficial Impact of Newspaper Paywalls on Users

There continues to be fierce debate about the cost/benefits of newspaper paywalls, a debate Mathew Ingram has been helping drive with a great deal of depth and with excellent links.

It is interesting to watch Ingram take on, and have to rebut, the problematic thinking that seems to so frequently comes out of the Columbia Journalism Review which, sadly, as America’s most important journal on the industry and trainer of next generation journalist, is probably the most conservative voice in the debate. That said, while its contributions are defensive and disappointing, they are understandable. And well, it makes for fascinating reading of how people deal with an industry in decline/collapse/[insert whatever word you prefer here]. Someone should package these and make it mandatory stuff for MBA types.

Personally, I’m somewhat indifferent. If paywalls can save newspapers (every indication suggests that they cannot) then great! If they can’t… okay. The sky will not fall and the world will not end. We will have to figure out some new models for thinking about how we dispense news and discuss issues. Or, perhaps better still, might rethink what “news” and “media” is and means (psst… already happening).

I don’t want to join the holy war around paywalls, so I’m not trying to add to that debate directly – you should read Ingram and the others yourself.

What I do want to contribute is what I’m experiencing as a consumer. And what I can say is that I’ve found paywalls to be profoundly beneficial to me as an avid and significant news consumer, but in ways that I’m pretty sure the news industry is going to find disturbing and disappointing.

tweets-on-paper

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, in Canada several newspapers have thrown up paywalls – including the Globe and Mail (the main national newspaper) as well as the main “traditional” newspaper in my market – the Vancouver Sun. Each offers something like 20 free articles a month – akin to what the New York Times does. I also assume (but confess I don’t actually know) that if you arrive at an article via facebook or twitter, it does not count towards that total.

Now, every morning when I visit the home page of the Globe and the Sun and I see an article that might be interesting, I hover my mouse over it and ask myself the same question I suspect tens of thousands of others ask in that moment: “Is reading this article worth burning one my of my 20 free articles this month?” (or, framed another way: “is this article, sponge worthy?”)

And you know what? About 90% of the time, more actually, the answer is no.

And you know what else?

I’m grateful that this is the choice I’m being forced to make.

The internet is filled with news and articles that are wonderfully distracting and that I should probably not spend time reading. It turns out that by “internet” I also mean “pieces of news and articles in the pages of the Globe and the Sun.

What pay walls are reminding me of is that time is my most valuable (or scarce) resource, not access to content. By putting a price on their content the Globe, the Sun and everyone else with a paywall is simultaneously helping me put a “value” on my time. And that is a real service.

Interestingly, it makes getting a subscription is even less interesting to me. A subscription is basically a license for the Globe or Sun to eat up an even bigger chunk my time (which is scarce) with content (which is not scarce), much of which I really don’t need. This is not to say that there is not good content in either newspaper. There is. Sometimes some VERY good content. But about 99% of their content is either not relevant (or basically a form of entertainment) or worse, a kind of unhelpful distraction – what Clay Johnson would call “junk information” in his book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (my review here). So why would I pay to get access behind a paywall when only 1% of the content is valuable to me and the other 99% is likely an unwanted time suck? Is the 1% worth it… so far… no. Indeed, if you are going to do paywalls, newspapers had better REALLY up their game.

And, well, if I just want to burn time and read fun things… well, the internet is the best thing in the world for that! There is almost unlimited quantities of high quality articles about things I don’t urgently need to know scattered all over it!

So I’m loving the paywall because it has made me more judicious about what I read. But that happens to mean less from these newspapers. In the end, if many people are like me (and, I’m a pretty avid news reader, so not really representational) I can’t see this boding well for the industry. Maybe some big papers, like the Guardian and the New York Times can survive on this model. I can’t see local newspapers, with their value chain and costs, surviving.

Indeed the other thing I’m paying for… the editorial piece, also becomes a starker choice to me. I may be an avid news reader, but the editor of these papers is not my editor – their audience is someone else (probably a boomer). Twitter continues to be my main news editor, particularly my “thought-leaders” list of people I respect (but don’t always agree with) give me a constant stream of interesting content.

I also want to make clear, I’m also not a “it must be free” kind of guy. I mean… I like free. But I don’t worship at its altar.

I pay for books all the time. I pay for my subscription to the Economist. There I feel about 60% of the content is really good. Of course – bigger caveat – I only get the digital edition, and I really care (e.g. pay a premium for) the fact that they read every edition to me. This means I can listen while exercising (running) or walking through airports. As a result the Economist doesn’t compete for my time in the same way the Globe or Sun is – but that is clever of them! They worked themselves into my less valuable “workout” and “commuting time”, not my more valuable “productivity” time. It means I also digest almost the entire thing every week.

So my sense is that pay walls can be a good thing for thoughtful users. I’m sure it will drive many to lower quality free content, but for many others it will help them think more judicious about how they spend their time. Frankly, not reading half the stuff I read and spending that time writing, reading something else, or spending time with my son would probably be a big boost to both my productivity and quality of life.

But that doesn’t solve any problems for newspapers.

13 thoughts on “The Beneficial Impact of Newspaper Paywalls on Users

  1. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting December 5, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  2. IanVisits

    I have had a vaguely similar epiphany myself in an unrelated area – online videos.

    My old laptop died last year, and being of limited finances at the moment, my flatmate built a desktop out of spare parts, but it lacks a soundcard and speakers.

    I am not so poor that I couldn’t buy some, but oddly I just never got round to it – and the longer I left it, the less I missed it.

    If I really need to watch a video clip, I can watch/hear it on my smartphone, but that is an effort, and so now when presented with a link to YouTube which is invariably of average quality at best, I simply don’t bother clicking on them.

    You could argue that I should be able to not click on links regardless of the ability of the computer to play the sound file, and by now I have probably learnt to avoid the time-sucking vortext that is the drip-feed of youtube links that flow our way.

    But I needed the soundcard/speakers to be missing before I learnt that self-control.

    Try disabling the sound card on your computer, it is surprisingly liberating.

    Reply
  3. alexsirota

    Interesting thought David. I’m pretty sure most don’t realize that there is a paywall on any newspaper. It is not like there is a badge on all newspaper links that say “warning paywall ahead” so I think many people just click until it says “sorry you need to pay” I don’t think most are as thoughtful as you about the meaning of paywall for your personal time.

    And of course the newspapers don’t interpret the paywall strategy at all as you do. They want typical online newspaper junkies who have no idea at all how many articles they read to just get so aggravated that they subscribe.

    For the New York Times for my ipad i recently tried out the free version of the unlimited digital subscription. I think the experience is worthy in Canada where the NYT is hard to get. So I think there will be modes where newspapers will eke out

    Reply
    1. alexsirota

      A reasonable subscription rate. Their staff and production teams will change drastically and eventually print will disappear for most or be a premium product. They may not even be called a newspaper.

      Reply
  4. hollinm

    The fact is I will not pay to read any newspaper. There are other sources of news. The fact is when you do read a newspaper news report or a columnist opinion much of it is based on spin, smear, gossip and outright fabrication. I suspect if they are trying to kill the newspaper business they should continue to put paywalls in place. Eliminate the 20 free articles a month and see what happens. I suspect there will be a lot of out of work media types.

    Reply
  5. MLNNLFAN

    Hey I was right there with you until you sideswiped me with that boomer put down. This boomer’s an avid newsreader too and agrees with your assessment up to that point, so I’m not sure why you want to alienate me.  Why can’t we all get along? However, the future of news reporting has to adapt as we all do to change and frankly I m just as happy not to have all those dead trees to pick up and recycle.  I d even be willing to pay someone to cull the best articles from many papers( National Newswatch does this well but the focus is mostly Canadian), just cant afford subscriptions to all the papers I love to scan. And BTW, The Guardian is still free on line.

    Reply
    1. David Eaves

      Not a sideswipe, just an observation. I’m not their target audience. Boomers are. 
      That’s not to say the Globe has progress on this front in the last few years (see Eat the Young from August 2009) but they know where their subscription bread is buttered, and it is not with my demographic, and the content reflects that fact.

      Reply
      1. MLNNLFAN

        Thanks for that reference. I read your article and I agree. I was born in ’47 and l can tell you that what I get to experience of the Millennials has the same extraordinary feel that transformed the world in the 60s era of Nixon and war and civil and women’s rights, and I m most hopeful you guys will get us out of this mess we seem to have gotten into despite our best intentions, and onto a much better path as a nation.  I just don’t understand how not voting will work in a system that requires it. Hold your noses, make one of the opposition parties commit to changing the voting system to represent the people,  make them do it, and change that awful corporate takeover any damn way you can!

        Reply
  6. Chrystal Ocean

    Stopped visiting the Globe and Mail website as soon as they erected their paywall. Then annoyed at being tricked by short URLS into visiting their site, subsequently installed a long-URL browser extension.  

    The Globe had been one of my favourite news sites. Turns out, its competitors have easily taken over their spot. The CBC has been the most to benefit. If it should happen that a G&M headline catches my attention, I google it. Invariably, similar content appears on a non-paywall site. If it doesn’t, then either the news wasn’t worth repeating by competitors or the others haven’t quite caught up on it. The latter is OK; I can wait.

    Reply
  7. Craig Saila

    Excellent piece, David – digital subscriptions, in general, are actually a great way to model monetary value in the attention economy. As the digital business guy at The Globe, this is, for me, one of the more interesting things about our fourth digital foray into the subscription game. 

    Eager to see how it all plays out as more of the mainstream Canadian digital media goes to a subscription model. (And, you’re right, The Globe articles you’ve read via a social link don’t count against your monthly limit.)

    Reply
  8. Steve

     

    With
    the value of those mastheads not on the national radar screen rapidly
    diminishing, and the industry flocking to gimmicks in order slow the demise of
    print, I’m convinced it’s time we allowed the marketplace of readers to decide
    if and when the individual pieces of content produced should be monetized. Not
    sure how a story or video achieves maximum viral interest and is talked about
    around the kitchen table or water cooler if parked behind a paywall, and
    keeping score of how many stories I’ve read or viewed during a publisher-defined
    period of time is an instinctively negative experience for consumers and
    technologically porous in practice. And just how many sites will a consumer
    subscribe to in order to read or view what they want to consume?

    Maybe not yet Armageddon,
    but the issues mainstream publishers face are debilitating and their way of
    doing business today, unsustainable: aging printing presses reaching the end of
    their useful life with a negative future ROI; employees cleverly but
    indefensibly disguised as independent contractors delivering their products; an
    archaic belief that readers will continue to support a masthead simply because
    of its one-time relevance and legacy; and the stark realization that with each
    readership study commissioned, the demos relied on for their very existence are
    looking even less like the audience advertisers demand they reach.

    With the
    proliferation of metered paywalls, the vast majority of media companies appear
    intent on writing another Darwinian chapter in their history by following the
    big publishing dogs over what could well be a fiscal cliff of their own making.

    It’s time for
    innovation that gives publishers the tool to create a new revenue stream based
    on monetizing individual pieces of content that are credible and virally-certified
    by the marketplace of readers as worth paying for, rather than replicating
    failed subscription models of the past. 

    Steve Staloch

    President & CEO

    Tolltrigger, LLC

    Reply
  9. Steve

     

    With
    the value of those mastheads not on the national radar screen rapidly
    diminishing, and the industry flocking to gimmicks in order slow the demise of
    print, I’m convinced it’s time we allowed the marketplace of readers to decide
    if and when the individual pieces of content produced should be monetized. Not
    sure how a story or video achieves maximum viral interest and is talked about
    around the kitchen table or water cooler if parked behind a paywall, and
    keeping score of how many stories I’ve read or viewed during a publisher-defined
    period of time is an instinctively negative experience for consumers and
    technologically porous in practice. And just how many sites will a consumer
    subscribe to in order to read or view what they want to consume?

    Maybe not yet Armageddon,
    but the issues mainstream publishers face are debilitating and their way of
    doing business today, unsustainable: aging printing presses reaching the end of
    their useful life with a negative future ROI; employees cleverly but
    indefensibly disguised as independent contractors delivering their products; an
    archaic belief that readers will continue to support a masthead simply because
    of its one-time relevance and legacy; and the stark realization that with each
    readership study commissioned, the demos relied on for their very existence are
    looking even less like the audience advertisers demand they reach.

    With the
    proliferation of metered paywalls, the vast majority of media companies appear
    intent on writing another Darwinian chapter in their history by following the
    big publishing dogs over what could well be a fiscal cliff of their own making.

    It’s time for
    innovation that gives publishers the tool to create a new revenue stream based
    on monetizing individual pieces of content that are credible and virally-certified
    by the marketplace of readers as worth paying for, rather than replicating
    failed subscription models of the past. 

    Steve Staloch

    President & CEO

    Tolltrigger, LLC

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Newspaper Paywalls – Are They The Future? | The Retiring Boomer « The Affluent Boomer™

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