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Published on May 19th, 2012 | by Marisa Paulson

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The paywall debate






Although it’s not exactly a new topic, paywalls have been in the news as of late as newspaper companies, media experts and news consumers debate the price of information. What is the right price? Who is willing to pay? Is anyone?

 

Sometimes, I think being in journalism school and surrounded by so many people who consume so much media on a regular basis can distort my thinking about paywalls since my professors, classmates and myself are most likely very different from the typical American when it comes to news consumption.

 

I read two polls this week that seemed to be fairly optimistic about how people are not as adverse to paywalls as you might think. This study cited by eMarketer found that 42 percent of people who encounter a paywall explore the price options and consider a purchase decision and 42 percent also agreed that paywalls are essential for companies that provide high quality content and services. But if you follow the link, you’ll see that the study eMarketer referenced is from DigiCareers and included only digital media professionals.

 

This poll from PBS’ “Media Shift: Your Guide to the Digital Revolution” was slightly less positive since 38 percent voted that information should be free, although 28 percent favored a monthly subscription for “all you can eat.” This poll is open to anyone who visits, but my educated guess it’s mostly media professionals, too, given the nature of the website.

 

I haven’t read a poll or survey recently that surveys a large sample of news consumers, but this recent Nieman Journalism Lab article argues that most Americans just don’t give a damn about what is going on around them, even if it’s in their own backyard. Despite that many local journalists report that their service is crucial for informed citizens, especially in towns that only have one news outlet, the reality is that local news gets less than half of one percent of all pageviews in a local market and people spend a mere nine minutes per month with local news, according to ComScore numbers.

 

Being from a town of 1,800 myself, I can definitely see why this might not be an entirely accurate representation, since a lot of small town newspapers don’t have websites (yes, still…I know it’s 2012, but this is true) and those that do aren’t exactly attracting top digital talent.

 

According to the same Nieman Journalism Lab article, people care mostly about themselves and if doesn’t directly impact them in a significant way, they turn to what Gene Weingarten calls the “happy, glitzy, ditzy” stuff—entertainment news or that lovely word, “infotainment.”

 

Given that information, I can definitely see why some oppose paywalls. It seems like that if people aren’t regularly consuming information that is already free, what’s the future of our community/city/state/country if we restrict that flow of information? Are we encouraging apathy?

 

Canadian journalist Matthew Ingram presented three good reasons why he doesn’t like paywalls last week in GigaOM. First, it cuts of that flow of information. Ingram shared that as a business columnist at the Globe, his audience numbers plummeted after a paywall was implemented. Secondly, Ingram argues that they are backward, rather than forward, looking. He suggests newspapers continue to push toward high quality niche content rather than aggregated general news content. Lastly, Ingram says that while paywalls may work for companies with large audiences and large pocketbooks like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, most newspapers do not have their brands or their ability to produce mass amounts of quality content that people are willing to pay for. “A paywall is just as likely to kill them off completely as to save them,” he says.

 

I can understand Ingram’s points, and I also definitely recognize Clay Shirky’s argument that paywalls could lead to “Journalism as Luxury”—elites get what they need, while communities would suffer, e.g. Bell, Calif., times a thousand. I pay $7.50 per month to read The New York Times online, but I fully realize that I spend that because news is a strong priority for me and I can afford that (thanks to student loans at the moment), but for others, paying nearly $100 per year for news is out of the question.

 

Even though I pay for The New York Times, I don’t pay for anything else online and I probably spend 30 minutes a day, on average, consuming news. Why? Because no other website that I visit has bothered to ask me to pay.

 

As Ken Doctor stated earlier this month, “Let’s start with this basic principle: People won’t pay you for content if you don’t ask them to.” Warren Buffett, who bought most of Media General’s newspapers this week, agrees and said he thinks they’re newspapers best defense:

 

“When they put papers up on the Internet and you get free, you’re competing with yourself. And throughout the industry you’re seeing a reaction to that problem and an answer to it. … You shouldn’t be giving away a product you’re trying to sell.”

 

I can’t help but think that given some of Doctor’s evidence that paywalls can be successful—such as 33-45 percent of consumers who pay for digital subscriptions click to buy before they ever run into a paywall, and new products create new markets since most digital subscribers are not former print subscribers—that newspapers should at least experiment with metered model paywalls and different pricepoints.

 

What we do and what we produce does have value. I really see no difference between a great piece of journalism and a great song or a great TV episode—they all take time, energy and money to produce and they’re produced with an audience in mind. I am encouraged, no matter how unwilling or seemingly apathetic about news that some people are, that newspapers are trying to get that point across. I love Doctor’s closing thought:

 

“Overall, this is a revolution in more than pricing. It’s a revolution in thinking and, really, publisher identity.”

 

 

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