paywallNewspaper-industry veteran Alan D. Mutter’s latest post at Reflections of a Newsosaur has to do with the subject of paywalls. He lays out the reason why so many newspapers instituted paywalls over the last few years—a response to an industry sales collapse, in conjunction with letting print subscribers bypass the digital paywall. The newspapers publishers hoped they would attract a substantial digital audience who would be willing to pay for digital news content—but that didn’t happen.

Instead, most papers with paywalls report subscribers in the five-digit range. The exceptions are bigger papers like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal—but given that those papers are effectively “mission-critical reading for the international elites in government, business, and academia,” and are frequently paid for by the reader’s employer rather than the reader, those aren’t exactly broadly applicable to most paywalled papers. Either way, these numbers pale by comparison to the number of actual Internet users out there—and that’s a problem for papers, who simply aren’t pulling in the kind of money they need from these paywalls.

Mutter thinks that newspapers need to start taking those paywalls down, because they’re standing in the way of effectively monetizing their digital versions. Readers are turned off by paywalls, and often leave a paywalled paper and don’t bother returning. As print-preferring subscribers age out of reading papers, that’s going to be a problem.

The digital pivot won’t happen very effectively if casual readers encounter pop-ups that either block, or threaten to throttle, access to the content they want to view. With so much news available for free on the web, paywalls are distinctly inhospitable – especially the young cosnsumers coveted by publishers and their advertisers.  Repelled once or twice by paywalls, most incidental readers depart and seldom return.

This is all very well as far as it goes. But Mutter doesn’t address the other elephant in the room: the issue of adblocking. Another article in my feed lately, from the Nieman Journalism Lab, quotes an online publisher trade group study that shows that the majority of respondents don’t like ads for various reasons, and that as many as one in three American Internet users are “very likely or somewhat likely” to try adblockers in the next three months.

So, if paywalls don’t work very well, and more and more readers are inclined to block ads, what’s left? Asking for donations?

Something is going to have to happen over the next few years in the online content industry. Either sites are going to have to find new ways of getting revenue, or they’re going to have to shut down until they can. Maybe if enough sites shut down, consumers will be inclined to want to pay for content after all, either in cash or by viewing ads?

Certainly, consumers can and will pay for content when they want it badly enough. That Mystery Science Theater 3000 Kickstarter I mentioned yesterday met every single one of its stretch goals, including a couple more they tacked on during the telethon itself, and as a result 14 new episodes will be produced. Maybe everybody can’t pay for everything, but enough people might be willing to pay for enough things to keep everything going.

It should be interesting to see what happens. It seems like things should only be able to go on the way they have been for so long.


  1. When you have dug a hole so deep you don’t even know how you’ll get out again, what’s the first step?

    To stop digging.

    Stop digging, because going even deeper sure isn’t going to make getting out of the hole any easier, and right now you need to think about the problem. Which is kinda hard to do when you keep distracting yourself.

    That’s my answer to many similar questions I see people asking these days, not just this one. And never mind that the answer might turn out to be, “you can’t get out of the hole again; build yourself a subterranean kingdom instead”. Or even, “you can get out, but only if you give up on what you are and turn into a completely different creature”.

    You can’t revert change. You can’t even stop change. And you can’t survive it unchanged.

    When are people going to learn?

  2. The problem is that most newspapers still price their digital subscriptions at or near the old print subscription rates. Maybe when all one had was their local paper it might make sense to pay three figures a year for “news”, but when people read their articles a la carte it is ridiculous to expect people to fork even $10 a month for just one newspaper.

    Because the marginal cost is almost zero, news sites should look to maximize paying readers by setting low price points such as $5 a year. They could also ban together is some sort of large cable TV style outfit so that people could get access to all newspapers across the country for $10/mo. Clicks could then be tracked and payments made from the giant pool of money.

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