Paywalls are either the savior newspapers have been crying out for, or an irrational rearguard tantamount to digital suicide.
The newspaper industry is going through a period of transition. It wasn’t long ago that they sold millions of copies every day and made relatively large profits through this. But then the Internet came along and ruined everything.
Now, companies must decide - erect a paywall, or leave everything open. And it seems that a consensus hasn’t been reached. Major publications like the Guardian and the Huffington Post have resisted, while the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph, to name just a few, are firmly for them.
While it’s irritating, you can understand why the latter have decided to guard their content. Digital advertising hasn’t grown at the expected pace, and the emergence of ad-blocking makes it even less attractive. Basically, even though paywall-free publications might attract more readers, they don’t necessarily translate into increased revenue.
If not a subscription model, then how can publishers make money? City AM - a free London business paper - took the bold move of making its content inaccessible to people running ad blockers. However bold, City AM’s plan is reminiscent of the actions carried out by record labels when piracy became big. And as they learned, it’s never good to upset your customers.
The Sun - the UK’s most popular newspaper - also made a big decision this year. Since June, the publication’s website hasn’t been restricted by a paywall. The strategy is to increase the paper’s online readership so that it’s more attractive to advertisers. Mark Darcey, CEO of News UK stated: ‘We [The Sun] will be expanding our pool of digital inventory, making us better placed to respond to the calls of advertisers for solutions across print and digital’.
As a major newspaper, The Sun’s decision is important. But it hasn’t, however, stopped companies - like Mashable - from claiming that ‘we’ve hit a peak on the free internet.’ And that now’s the time ‘to pay up’.
Companies which have strict paywalls - some are lenient and allow users to read a specific amount of articles - are a big problem for Google. Nobody likes to find an interesting article, only for it to be blocked. Google’s ‘First Click Free’ program - where users can read an article they find on Google but not others - is used by the New York Times. While deemed a solution, publishers have found that even if users get the first click for free, they get frustrated quickly and are put off subscribing.
The scope of digital advertising needs to widen if paywalls are to be lifted by everyone. Until then, some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers are likely to stick with their subscription model.