Another Newspaper Paywall Bites The Dust

from the bye-bye dept

For many years, we’ve warned newspapers that rushed headlong into paywalls that it was a fool’s game. While, yes, their traditional advertising business was struggling, the idea that people would come out of the woodwork to suddenly pay for the online version seemed unlikely to come true, other than — perhaps — for the very largest newspapers in the world, the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal (and even then…). And yet, there remain a religious few who insist that paywalls must be the answer. They’re wrong each and every time, but they can’t stop screaming it. And so they trick foolish newspapers, desperate for some way to stem the revenue slide, into implementing a paywall, and nearly all of those papers discover the same damn thing: the people don’t pay, and thanks to the paywall, the traffic decreases, fewer people link to or share their stories, and the advertisers go away even faster.

The latest to make this discovery: the Toronto Star, which has announced that its paywall is going away. Notably, it was the newspaper’s own advertisers who helped management make this decision:

This decision means that effective April 1 all of our award-winning content will be available free on our website,, and across all digital devices, including tablets and smartphones.

We are making this move after extensive input from our readers and our advertisers. Listening to our audiences is critical to the success of our daily newspaper and our digital offerings and we are committed to continually adjusting our digital strategies to provide them with what they want.

We’ve been saying it for years, but it needs to be said again: the news “business” has almost never (there are a very few exceptions) really been the “news” business. It has almost always been the community business. Build a community and then do something to monetize that community to continue serving that community. Most of the time that’s been selling their attention in the form of ads. But, since the rise of the internet, newspapers no longer had quite the monopolistic control on the communities they were serving. That’s the real challenge facing the old newspapers. How to continue to build a community. And yet, rather than look to add value and give the community reasons to stick around, they’ve gone in the other direction: trying to lock out the community, to put up barriers and toll booths that actually diminish the value to the community. A paywalled story is one that people are less likely to share, less likely to discuss, and less likely to visit altogether.

Meanwhile, you see stories about companies like Nextdoor, which are actively building local communities by providing value, and they’re valued at over a billion dollars. Why didn’t newspapers build something like that, rather than focus on putting up a stupid paywall that no one wanted?

The NY Times and the WSJ’s “paywalls” are still really little more than the “emperor’s new paywall.” Both are easy to get around, so they still get people sharing. People pay because they’re “the NY Times” and “the Wall Street Journal,” and some feel a sort of obligation to pay. But they’re hardly paying because of the paywall.

The Toronto Star’s decision to kill off its paywall just reinforces the simple fact that a paywall is a stupid business model in an age of abundant information. The publications that get the most attention these days — places like Buzzfeed and Vox and Vice — don’t talk about paywalls at all, because they know it would be pointless and go against the very concept of everything that they’re building. So it still amazes me that other newspapers have been suckered into believing that a paywall is somehow the answer.

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Companies: toronto star

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Comments on “Another Newspaper Paywall Bites The Dust”

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Pragmatic says:


The way the American Right is going, can we please start calling it the Wrong Wing? They’re nuts…

…said the person who STILL self-identifies as conservative.

They’ve become that embarrassing uncle who comes to family gatherings primarily to sound off about his favorite conspiracy theories.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: WSJ

The entire political system is embarrassing, right, left center… you name it. All crooks, all in it for themselves. The left is just as bad, if not worse than the right. Even now they are, through executive order, attempting to flood the labor market with low wage earners from Mexico instead of trying to take care of the millions of people that have left the workforce that are already here…. and the low wage earners all lined up to vote for the idiot signing the executive action… Brilliant!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: WSJ

The entire political system is embarrassing, right, left center… you name it. All crooks, all in it for themselves. The left is just as bad, if not worse than the right.

The USA doesn’t have a major left wing party. In international terms, the USA has a moderate right wing party and an extreme right-wing party.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: WSJ

“The left is just as bad, if not worse than the right.”

The main difference is that there has been almost no effective liberal contingent in power for many decades now — for the vast majority of my life.

Conceptually, you’re right — there’s lots of bad behavior all around. In practice, though, I only really care about those who have the power to affect me. That doesn’t really describe the left.

“Even now they are, through executive order”

Ahhh, I see why I was confused. We differ about what constitutes “the left”. I don’t think Obama is leftist. He’s right-leaning.

AJ says:

Re: Re: Re:2 WSJ

Well, I’m not saying he’s far left, and to be honest, i had to go to the wiki and read up on the definitions of Left and Right to make sure I wasn’t confused as well. He’s not crazy left like I hear about in other countries, but IMO, he’s about as far left as we have in this country.

“Conceptually, you’re right — there’s lots of bad behavior all around. In practice, though, I only really care about those who have the power to affect me.”

I can no longer find ammo for my guns, and I do still hunt for food (not all). I also garden.

My wife is Canadian, we spent thousands of dollars getting her here legally, money we didn’t have and had to borrow, but we did, because that was the law. No free ride for us.

When Obama care kicked in, my deductible shot up to 5K, 5K!!!!, and my monthly insurance payments have doubled. My wife has a heart condition, we’ve spent every penny we have on treatment. Much worse now than it was before Obama care… much.

It may have little power to affect you, but it’s wearing me and my family completely out. My quality of life has dropped significantly since he’s been in office. These things are all him, not Bush, not anyone else, ALL HIM.

Right, Left.. to me it’s been one extreme to the other, and both equally bad. Bush to Obama… my life has not gotten better.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 WSJ

I have to take issue with “It’s all Obama’s fault”

My company switched to $5000 deductible long before Obamacare. It utilized a Health Savings Account that was pushed by Bush.

And what kind of gun can you not buy ammo for? And what legislation did Obama push to make that happen?

And it was expensive and difficult to gain citizenship before Obama. What has Obama done to make it worse?

If there are laws you don’t like, take it up with your senators and congresspeople. Obama doesn’t make laws.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: WSJ

“How could anybody be AGAINST Net Neutrality?”

Most republicans, as with most Democrats, are not opposed to net neutrality at all. At the people level, NN is not even close to being a partisan issue.

The GOP, however, is trying their very best to turn it into a partisan issue as part of their political strategy: they need issues to divide people. Their stance on NN is not the result of underlying philosophies or political viewpoint. It’s the result of their need to manipulate people.

Anonymous Coward says:

This goes hand in hand with having a commenting section to help achieve that community. So many sites have went the way to closing them rather than decent moderation. In effect they have encouraged their community to go elsewhere to express their opinion.

What happens next, is the community is lost. People that comment, buy into the community so they have in turn lost much of their loyal readership to those places that will allow it. They forgot the reason why commenting was opened in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The problem with commenting sections is that it gives readers a place to call bullshit on a story. As it seems the bigger the media organization, the more likely it is to be uncritically repeating government propaganda, leading to more rebuttals, and basically making them look like fools. So it’s no surprise that many of the bigger news sites (those that ever had reader comment sections) are closing down their comment sections, as heavily moderating them to remove criticism only tends to backfire — a lesson that’s been relearned many times over.

SortingHat (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well if you call two people cussing at each other or arguing without ever getting anywhere as decent moderation then I can see why they have shut down.

I don’t read comments when they get that way. We all left grade school for a reason so why bring it on here?

There should be a website called Social Retards Dot Com for people to post their worst comments ever and have a policy of silence where it doesn’t spread anywhere else.

What’s said in there stays in there.

Anonymous Coward says:

The one thing that bugs me to no end is searching online for something and getting a bunch of paywalled websites at the top of the list. I’m not about to pay $5 just to browse a webpage to see if it has what I’m looking for. Why can’t Google ignore (or at least de-rank) private for-pay sites?

Does anyone know how Google is able to pierce those paywalls and “read” articles that are locked up? Is Google actually paying a subscription, or (more presumably) is it because the IP addresses for Google’s crawler have been whitelisted?

And if due to Google being whitelisted, would masquerading as Google in this case be considered a criminal act?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And if due to Google being whitelisted, would masquerading as Google in this case be considered a criminal act?

I don’t know if it would be considered a criminal act, but I definitely know it would be a futile act. Reason is that TCP/IP connections effectively have a “return address” that responses are to be sent to. That return address is the IP address that the connection originated from. And if Google is whitelisted, the address that is whitelisted. So you could forge a packet that looked like it came from Google, but the responses would get sent back to Google, not you.

mrtraver (profile) says:

small markets

I wish the newspapers in my semi-rural market would get the message. I stopped using their sites when they started charging after letting you see just a few stories per month, but there are not many alternatives for local news here. The TV station websites do have some news, but it is more regional.

Come to think of it, if they did take down their paywalls, I wouldn’t know it, because I never visit their sites any more.

Ninja (profile) says:

Hmm I wonder how these news outfits can make money other than advertising. Merchandising would be possible for specific parts of them but not the entirety. Donations come to mind as well as systems like the “insider” badges here on Techdirt which would need them to build a participating community loosely moderated. I’d guess a few channels like podcast/video streaming of exclusive content based on the news themselves (ie an in depth analysis or a discussion on the implications and the historic reasons that contributed to the fact… I’d pay for that).

Any other ideas?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I can only say what would work for me. I have no problem paying cash money for online services (like I do for Techdirt) when I feel like I’m getting at least a reasonable value for the money.

If all a news outlet is doing is reprinting press releases and wire stories (which constitute the bulk of what appears in them), then there is no value for me there and I will not be paying. If, however, a news outlet engages in actual quality journalism in a form that is useful to me — particularly if the journalism is pertinent to me (local topics, subjects I care about, etc.), I’ll pay with a smile on my face.

It seems to me the problem is really the low quality of what appears in most news outlets.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Those who don't learn from history, are doomed to repeat it

Newspapers NEVER made a dime on publication – only from advertising. They need to re-learn this lesson… I don’t mind reading news feeds from good journalistic publications on the Internet that include non-intrusive ads, but I won’t pay for them (the news feeds)! I used to have an online subscription to the WSJ (pre-Murdoch era), but dropped it when he took the publication over – I refuse to support a fascist like him!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Those who don't learn from history, are doomed to repeat it

“I don’t mind reading news feeds from good journalistic publications on the Internet that include non-intrusive ads”

Personally, my issue with ads is not their presence, but all the tracking that comes along with them. Until the tracking stops, I will continue to block ads.

Mat (profile) says:

In some cases.. yes... others no.

I used to work at The Washington Post, and have firsthand experience with all of this.

Paywalls will only work when you can provide news and information which is only available from that publication. For years, TWP and LAT were waiting for NYT to bite the bullet and go full paywall. Many of them wanted to get away from all of the ads and provide a better full page solution such as Olive, with no other options.

TWP allowed for a full Olive solution, but also moved to local news being paid. WSJ is a niche paper. YES, you can get news they provide in other places, but for most people who want their niche type of news and style, they have no problem paying for a subscription.

Smaller home-grown newspapers in small areas are also allowed to get away with this due to them providing the ONLY news in the area.

Obviously, print is dead and websites are the main focus. I’d imagine for years to come, we’re going to see an ebb and flow of paywalls as these behemoths attempt to change direction. The problem is, the mentality of the management which has had a foothold in print for years, isn’t quite done yet. So, when they see a rise in revenue online, they immediately think, “We have readers, let’s switch to full pay”… and then come back when they lose them.

It’s interesting to watch now that my paycheck and job security doesn’t rely on it, but it will all level out at some point. If they’re smart with their income and use it wisely on the right systems and research, they’ll prosper. You won’t do this very easily with a mentality like TWP, purchasing a 10 year development of SAP during a time of print downfall…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: In some cases.. yes... others no.

Thanks for you comment, I found it very interesting. We don’t often get a real behind-the-scenes peek at what the newspapers are doing (which is a shame, because if newspapers did actually give such insights, it would help them to build a community they so desperately need!)

I am curious about this, though: “Obviously, print is dead and websites are the main focus.”

It’s not clear to me at all that print is dead. In my market, there are three major print newspapers. The big old-guard one is struggling in a major way, and nobody would be surprised if it went out of business in the next five or ten years.

However, the other two are thriving and expanding more now than ever. There are two main differences between the ones that are succeeding and the one that is failing: the ones that are succeeding are regional papers that exclusively cover regional stories (with actual journalism). You won’t ever see a wire service story in their pages. The second thing they have in common is that they are free to read — both for the print version and the online version. These papers are thriving on advertising.

Kyle (profile) says:

Re: In some cases.. yes... others no.

WSJ is NOT really a newspaper. It is for investors to know what and when to invest.

An investor does not like being wrong as it’s a lot of dough that’s lost so WSJ has higher quality articles aimed at those groups.

Not you or me. We are usually not interested in investing stocks or pulling anything in/out so Wall Street Journal is useless for us.

Saying capitalism is failing is like saying math is failing.

It’s when only a few companies own everything that is the problem and even then it’s all boiled down to greed and no moral values of right and wrong.

“I can do whatever I want to my body!” and surprise surprise consequences DO exist! Both physical and spiritual.

Kyle (profile) says:

Re: Still searching...

Bingo! Somebody finally is waking up and smelling the stale coffee!

The mobile push by big industry is causing a huge pinch for a lot of companies not knowing which direction to go.

Hence the Windows 8 and 10 scandals where XP and 7 was pretty stable. Even Vista eventually got it’s act together better then Windows ME did but by then 7 was coming out.

Windows 7 is basically Vista 2.0

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