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Is 2016 The Year Of The Paywall?

Will it be the year that makes or breaks the paywall model?

16Feb

For some time, readers of the Wall Street Journal - those unwilling to part with the near $350 dollar yearly subscription fee, at least - have been exploiting a basic loophole to access content despite the site’s paywall. These include accessing articles through Google, deleting cookies or just browsing through virtual network. The US giants last month implemented a strategy to end the bypass, though, in the hope of encouraging more users to pay, with results still yet to be determined.

The challenge of generating adequate revenue from online content is by no means new. Where the print media once had all but a monopoly over the public’s news intake, the market has become saturated by the availability and ever-increasing diversity of online content.

Revenue created by the advertising space can only take a news outlet so far, with too many variables at play to consider the income ‘consistent’ and a danger that the site can become inundated with advertisements that unfortunately detract from the content’s respectability.

Online paywalls - the alternative to advertisement-heavy content - have been in use with fluctuating success since the WSJ implemented theirs nearly two decades ago. Both ‘hard’ paywalls - requiring users to pay a subscription fee before viewing any content - and ‘soft’ paywalls - allowing users to view a certain number of articles before needing a subscription, for example - have been tested with varying degrees of success, with the WSJ and the Times (UK) perhaps the most ardent pioneers.

As it stands, readers now contribute over half of the Times’ revenue and the New York Times recently surpassed the impressive total of one million digital-only subscribers. According to Gannett - who own more than 90 newspapers in the US - digital-only subscriptions have grown by 37% during the third quarter of 2015 alone, paving the way for others to follow suit and push subscription in 2016.

The system is problematic, though. While some (such as the Guardian), argue that a paywall limits traffic and relevance, others argue that convincing younger readers to part with a subscription fee is simply too difficult. Indeed, with an abundance of alternative outlets just a click away, it can be difficult to envisage the majority of news readers being convinced to seek paid content. Incidentally, the Guardian have taken a decidedly different approach, asking their readers to become ’supporters’ rather than subscribers, for an optional monthly fee of £5 designed to exploit the fierce loyalty of their readership.

Others take an ethical view on the matter, questioning the moral implications of big news being only available to those in a position to pay for it. Benjamin Mullin, managing editor at Poynter, wrote last month of the instances that major organizations have dropped their paywalls, citing the coverage of the snow storm on the East Coast of the US as a case in which public safety could be improved with widespread, accessible reporting on storm severity and road conditions.

But paywalls are being held back primarily through difficulties in marketing rather than ethical implications. In order to entice users to pay to peer inside, the content promised must be ‘special’, of higher quality or exclusive - hence why the WSJ and the Financial Times have been among the most successful in implementing paywalls. Their brands ensure a thoroughness and knowledge of financial markets only made possible by dedicated subject matter. In short, they offer something most cannot - a mentality more difficult to cultivate for more general news.

Essentially, a concerted effort will be crucial if paywalls are to become a universally viable model for media outlets. If the current free, reputable alternatives implemented paywalls collectively, it could ensure that readership and brand loyalty be directly reflected in subscriptions, but unified thought is evidently difficult given the conflicting opinions on the strategy.

But the shift is coming, and paywalls have been going up as quickly as print declined. More than half of US newspapers have adopted some form of the paywall model, while abandoning it - in the case of The Sun (UK) - has failed to curb a decline in readership. Rather than attempting to play clickbait sites at their own game, outlets hope that the promise of quality, consistent news will be enough to realign how consumers feel about paying for copy.

And new ideas are developing all the time. Apps like Blendle, Readly or Magster have aimed to compile subscriptions into a localized source of news, as Spotify and Amazon achieved with music and retail respectively, and it seems only a matter of time before the winning formula is unearthed. The WSJs closing of gaps in their paywall will likely see their list of subscribers lengthened - despite a probable decline in readership. And, though some may never choose to pay for their news, the concept attributing quantifiable value to an outlets online pages may just become an industry-saving norm. 

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