Lots Of Newspapers Discovering That Paywalls Don't Work

from the shocking,-there dept

For many years, while some journalists (and newspaper execs) have been insisting that a paywall is “the answer” for the declining news business, we’ve been pointing out how fundamentally stupid paywalls are for the news. Without going into all of the arguments again, the short version is this: the business of newspapers has never really been “the news business” (no matter how much they insist otherwise). It’s always been the community and attention business. And in the past they were able to command such attention and build a community around news because they didn’t have much competition. But the competitive landscape for community and attention has changed (massively) thanks to the internet. And putting up a paywall makes it worse. In most cases, it’s limiting the ability of these newspapers to build communities or get attention, and actively pushing people away.

And, yes, sure, people will point to the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times as proof that “paywalls work.” But earth to basically every other publication: you’re not one of those publications. The paywalls there only work because of the unique content they have, and even then they don’t work as well as most people think.

Not surprisingly, more and more newspapers that bet on paywalls are discovering that they don’t really work that well and were a waste of time and effort — and may have driven away even more readers.

Of the paywalls erected in the past few years, many have delivered lackluster results, said Ken Doctor, a media consultant who writes the blog Newsonomics.

“The ones that were launched in 2012 to 2014 had good early results and they all largely stalled,” he said.

“They are no longer gaining much in the way of new digital subscriptions, and their print is in rapid decline.”

The article also quotes Alan Mutter who has been pointing out the fallacies around newspaper paywalls for probably longer than I have:

Paywalls can backfire also “because they put a barrier between the newspaper and the casual reader,” he added.

“They are truncating the size of the digital market, when the most important factor for digital is scale.”

Meanwhile, as newspapers are realizing this, even the “successful” paywall folks at the Wall Street Journal appear to be changing up its paywall to make it easier for non-paying users to read the articles.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get money from readers — but paywalls are a stupid way to do it. You’re asking them to pay for the same kind of value that they can often get elsewhere. That’s dumb. If you’re charging, you should be charging for unique value and something different that only your publication can provide. General interest news is not that.

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Comments on “Lots Of Newspapers Discovering That Paywalls Don't Work”

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UniKyrn (profile) says:

And why is their print edition dying?

How about the price going through the roof the last couple of years and the size of the paper shrinking even faster.

I subscribe to the daily paper that I used to deliver every day long ago. They just bumped the price another 20% for the next renewal and I’ve had enough. I’ve delivered, read and subscribed to it for over 40 years and watched as every other house nearby removed their newspaper box from the end of the driveway. Mine will be the last one to go for the area, but it’s time to retire it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I am very disappointed at the poor content in many newspapers recently. Even major papers seem to have reduced the target reading age, shortened the articles, reduced the depth and detail, and targeted form over content. They are largely poor imitations of yesteryear. Historical newspaper archives reveal so much which is never in the history books nor likely to make a splash on mobile-device snippet-‘news’. It is a huge cultural loss.

bob says:

Re: Re: Re:

Newspapers are not going to disappear entirely however the fat from the industry is being removed.

Eventually the cuts and shutdowns will end and a few papers will still be around because they actually have content worth reading. Also people will eventually realize the remaining papers cover the niche market of more depth and facts for each article than what is chased after by the normal media.

By that time, there will be something of value that is worth preserving.

It’s not the end of papers just a harsh time of refinement that few will emerge from.

Whatever says:

It’s easy to say “paywalls” (do you have a problem with subscription service as a concept) don’t work – but they do.

What doesn’t work is trying to sell non-unique content at a unique content price. Since most local and regional papers depends heavily on wire services for content, they are selling a non-unique product, something others are willing to give for “free” (free as in check out all our ads). Those papers have to consider what unique content they really have, and value it accordingly.

It’s not the paywall – it’s the content!

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not really. Mike is blaming the “paywall”, I am blaming the content.

What is interesting of course is that if more news sources were subscription based, the “free” stuff would be harder to find, as most of them are based on scraping subscription free news sites.

Mike wants to blame the wall, I am blaming the emtpy garden inside.

Skeeter says:

Hilarity in News to Begin With

Well, with most conservative-based newspapers closing; and with most liberal-based papers resorting to paywalls, the obvious 10,000 pound elephant in the room is the actual CLIENTELE remaining. Conservatives would still pay for papers for the most-part, but there are none left to read and few are going to pay for liberal trash when they don’t have to. Liberals aren’t going to placate the paywalls when they can get their 22-seconds of soundbyte news by catching it 3rd-hand on a ‘Reality TV show’ five days late. Thus, you are right, paywalls kill readership SLIGHTLY – but the real focus is that news is so hard-skewed left anymore, that no one wants to read about horror in the middle east, storms in the south, and what bad things the Republican candidate (while NO liberal paper is going to speak like that about a Democrat).

FYI – the press just doesn’t get it, the government doesn’t care, the Powers-that-be have you right where they want you, and the sheep keep waving at the wolves encircling them. Who needs news when you have ‘pop-culture-TV’, right?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Hilarity in News to Begin With

The most important question is why you feel the need to come in and comment on every article about news with an ignorant rant about how news outlets aren’t serving you personally in their political views. How they’d become rich if only they’d cater to you. Especially ones that pretend you’re superior to people who have a different viewpoint just because… something?

You’ve have thought the “conservatives” would have thicker skins and the ability to create new businesses that are successful at capturing the huge marketplace you claim is available to them. I wonder why they are failing? From your ranting, I assume it’s because they’re spending too much time whining online than actually doing something, or perhaps that the strawman fantasy you’ve created doesn’t actually exist, but who knows?

“Who needs news when you have ‘pop-culture-TV’, right?”

What does TV have to do with a discussion on the business models of newspapers? Who do you think you’re attacking?

We Fear Change says:

Re: Re: Hilarity in News to Begin With

Newspaper bias is not a myth. You only have to look to see who owns a particular newspaper to determine how it’s bias will run.

A while back there was a Mori poll taken that asked people to grade professions in terms of the respect they felt for them. Doctors and nurses figured highly, as did teachers, engineers, soldiers… at the bottom though were politicians, estate agents (AKA realtors in the US?), and journalists. Yes, journalists ranked lower than bankers. Who knew.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hilarity in News to Begin With

An individual publication may have a bias. However, it’s both a myth that the entire industry has one specific bias, and a myth that everything is “left” or “right” with nothing outside or in between. The issue isn’t bias itself, but deluded souls like Skeeter who feel that everything’s one or the other and they’re being conspired against by the world.

As for respect for a profession? When journalists do their job badly, they’re just copying and pasting or parroting other peoples’ words and so barely deserve to be paid. When they do their jobs correctly, they annoy people by asking difficult questions and uncovering uncomfortable truths. It would be suspicious if they were higher on the list.

streetlight (profile) says:

Pulitzer and advertising

The posting asserts, ” …the business of newspapers has never really been “the news business” (no matter how much they insist otherwise). It’s always been the community and attention business.”

It was Josef Pulitzer in the 1880s who came up with the idea that the profit in newspapers would come from advertising and not from subscription fees. I would maintain the news in newspapers was and is a sideline to advertising, though the news content has some value to subscribers. Maybe today’s on line newspaper web sites should return to the Pulitzer business model. They have a problem though: ad blockers derail this idea. Seems to me we have a successful, huge tech company that has adopted Pulitzer’s business model. It provides content and applications for free that that have great value to users paid for by advertising.

As others have noted and I see is that newspapers have very little news these days and what pretends to be news is actually features. And they have ad placement as news.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pulitzer and advertising

Ad blockers are a problem for newspapers because newspaper ads (online) are a problem to newspaper readers. If they want an ad-supported income model, they should put some effort into creating online ads that don’t annoy their readers. And Forbes, please note, that includes not serving malware in your ad stream.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Pulitzer and advertising

If they want an ad-supported income model, they should put some effort into creating online ads that don’t annoy their readers

‘Annoying’ is bearable. I’d be willing to put up with some ‘annoying’ if that was the price for good content. What I absolutely will not put up with is malicious, and when even major sites(like Forbes) serves up malicious ads that just makes it even more clear why ad-blockers are not just suggested software, they’re required.

The ones running the sites don’t care about the safety and security of those using their sites, which means their visitors have to do it themselves, and if that means ad-blockers then they have no-one to blame but themselves.

Sortinghat (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Pulitzer and advertising

The real problem is the ads are designed for touch screens and if you don’t have one it will make the whole page jump up and down because it thinks your “hovering* over it.

Most news sites are anti mouses and most mouses you buy are actually older ones they stopped making new ones because the assumption is everybody is for mobile only.

B mill says:

Re: Re: Pulitzer and advertising

They can check for ad blockers and force us to turn them off. I’ve been using the internet since pre WWW days. Once WWW hit, I was conditioned to ignore all advertisments because of the pop up days and all that crap. I guarantee I won’t pay attention to any of the ads anyway, but I’d turn off the ad blocker to read the articles. The reason I use ad blockers in the first place is these ads have become so intrusive you can’t hardly use the sites. I’ve been blocking ads on ebay forever, I turned it off and I don’t even recognize the site, it’s plastered with ads.

Anonymous Coward says:

Newspapers have misunderstood what their bread and butter were: Journalism + advertising.

If the newspapers would realize that the online equivalence of their old business-model would be the combination of journalism and an advertisement agency, they would get closer to realizing how to survive. As with any old publishing: The lack of a physical object where they could overcharge customers is gone. The internet lacks some of the boundaries they used to live off, but a more DIY-attitude in terms of advertisement and aggresively working on making a targeted geographical match of visitors and advertisers through content, may lessen some of the problems of switching over.

The real problem is paying for independent investigative journalistic content today. That is where the internet is still in its infancy.

aidian says:

Yes and no...

…newsroom I work in has a soft paywall. We have a pretty high number of free articles, and LOTS of stuff doesn’t count against it. Pretty much the only thing that does count against the paywall is local reporting.

The thing is, you’re not going to get much if any local journalism from other sources. The local TV stations are pretty weak onair, and even weaker online. So if you’re interested in consistent, reliable, local news, you’re going to wind up reading our work. The trick is making sure that our reporting is actually meeting the needs and wants of our audience (and doing it without sacrificing actual news while chasing traffic). Whether we can pull that off, and whether the citizens of our region have the means and desire to pay enough to support the work we do via this business model remains to be seen. I don’t love this model, but I don’t see a better one.

Going entirely ad supported has a lot of issues. Most important is the rate online ads pay. It’s a fraction of what print ads pay. The phrase used is ‘digital dimes for analog dollars.’ Smart, thoughtful advertising can improve this – more relevant, non-traditional, more targeted advertising developed as part of local campaigns trying to reach local people – but so far we’re just starting to take baby steps in this direction.

I don’t love the hybrid model we’re working with, and, while it seems the best option and there’s some promise, I don’t know if it’ll work. But if you live in our area, and you’d like to know how the city council is spending your money, or why the local PD shot and killed an unarmed man last week, or why the health department only seems to ding Mexican restaurants, or whatever, then someone’s got to support the reporters who dig into those stories.

Those reporters are a group of skilled, dedicated professionals who do a pretty good job, and they do it for peanuts. With the exception of delivering pizzas, the news pays less than anything I’ve ever done. Even the publisher makes less than $100,000 a year.

Chuck says:

Re: Yes and no...

While I feel your pain a bit here, there’s two key things you seem to have missed here:

1) You don’t have an innate right to survive and prosper. This is a very, very large part of why so-called “old media” is failing. You are running under the delusion that your continued existence either is guaranteed, or else, should be guaranteed. But it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. If your audience doesn’t care enough for your reporting to fund it, then that’s life.

(I realize that sounds EXTREMELY harsh and I am sorry, but that point had to be made, if not for you than for everyone else.)

2) How did you sell ads in the past? You had 1 or more local advertising specialists who worked at the paper itself, as an in-house employee, and actually went to local businesses and sold ad space, right? (Ok if your paper is part of a larger publisher then probably not, but most local/independent papers did it this way.)

Counter-intuitively enough, this is one of the few things you should NOT be changing with your slow migration to the web.

So many local papers setup their web sites as an afterthought, and in doing so, they farm out their advertising to third parties. Why? Why on earth would you do this? You are an AD AGENCY, who just happens to also report the news. Why would you waste decades of contacts/clients/businesses who you already know would buy an ad?

Instead, actively sell ONLINE ads to the very same people who are already buying your print ads. Market to them directly. You say you are the only good source of local news online? Awesome, then selling ad space to local businesses should be extremely easy.

In fact, since you already have code in place to paywall local stories (as opposed to, basically, AP stories people could pull from a million other news sites) take that same code and use it to place your ads. Local stories get local ads ONLY, ensuring that your business clients know that 99% of the eyeballs seeing those stories are actual, local, potential customers. Then place normal ads on your AP stories.

This way your local businesses have a MUCH higher rate of return advertising on your paper’s site than they would get, say, buying Google AdWords, and meanwhile you get your money up front and can reasonably charge per-view instead of per-click.

In other words, sell your online ads exactly the same way you’ve always sold your print ads. You’ll find a lot more success that way and you can take down the stupid paywall.

aidian says:

Re: Re: Yes and no...

Chuck…appreciate the thoughtful comments…in my case you’re kinda preaching to the choir. FWIW, I don’t have any delusion that local news operations will survive. If they don’t, c’est la vie, it’d be a loss for the community. Personally, it’d likely mean I wind up working less and making more money doing almost anything else 🙂

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Yes and no...

This is pretty close to the approach that my hometown paper has taken, although they’re a bit tighter with the paywall from the sounds of it.

I pay them. Not because of the paywall, but despite it.

Their coverage of local news is very good, and I want to support that. Also, they let me run my adblocker full blast and still read the news.

chris (profile) says:

Re: Yes and no...

Local TV stations have to rely on their apps in order to stand out. If you don’t have an app, you may as well not even exist. Even though you could go to the web site, chances are you won’t because it does not consume real estate on your phone. In other words it does not have a physical presence your mind can associate with their brand. Not so much an issue on the desktop but definitely a game changer on mobile.

I do enjoy the elitism of thinking that, because your brand is that strong, that people should just pay for it, and you don’t have to compete.

jameshogg says:

Re: Re:

Though I might add, if journalism demanded payment through assurance contracted crowdfunding before being worked on and released, this kind of paywall WOULD get credit for funding the discovery of those facts.

Precisely because it’s not being dependent on the utopia of “artificial scarcity”. Crowdfunding paywalls are natural scarcity, and it gives the journalists the advantage to set a price they require to do their work and actually get it.

Harold says:

The other thing of interest

I use an ad blocker – for lots of reasons – and I am locked out of the content of Forbes and Wired and others. All fine and good, its their right and I am not upset. However, I recently was directed to Newsweek and read an article which was so well written that I decided to subscribe for $1.25 per week. Did a 6-month subscription.

The sites I am blocked from do not get the opportunity for my business. Seems short sighted to me.

Ninja (profile) says:

Most of us have a handful of publications we like to read. If they can provide an easy, available way to get their content in a way I can curate I wouldn’t mind paying 2 or 3 bucks at most (remember, a handful) but not because I woudln’t have access to the content but rather because they provide value in paying. That’s a huge difference. I hope my favorite news outfits move to such system. I’d gladly lend a helping hand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Same is happening with internet radio , although instead of paywalls its exclusive streaming sites .
I still use my logitech squeezebox and have lost 3 local radio stations to this crap . I cant see how they (radio stations) are going to gain audience by limiting how their audience can hear them . I cant believe their advertisers
actually pay them to limit them selves out of existence .

TheResidentSkeptic says:

The Really Sad Part

..is that they never asked technologists for suggestions to move into the Digital World.

Here’s a quick example:

Given that subscriptions NEVER fully covered the cost of producing and distribution, then we have to ask what they did.

They provided a metric used to set advertising rates – the number of unique addresses (street) that subscribed. Not the number of readers. The digital world provides the same (and more) information for free – the number of unique addresses (IP) that 1) return daily; 2) return multiple times per day; 3) are new; 4) read Sunday only. These numbers could also be used the same way to set advertising rates. Of course, there would have to be more than 2 ads shown every 30 seconds.

Analysis of the on-line activity would provide instant feedback on what articles/news/items were actually of interest. You really had no clue when you threw 40 pages out there of what was actually read. The web gives you that insight – and could certainly be an indicator of where to expend resources to garner more hits, higher metrics, higher rates.

Customer inclusion would foster even more growth. Social sharing increases number of new IP hits.

But no – we’re gonna block feedback, add costs, add malware, and demand the Good Old Days back.

oh well.

Trish says:

It’s funny because the news is garbage. It exists to get people to read your paper, to get their eyeballs to the one thing that matters to you these days: Not journalism, not information, not change, ADVERTISING. You used to charge us for this advertising-to-home because you had a physical product to pay for, and people paid because they didn’t have the Internet to beam thousands of ads into their cerebral cortices per hour, for free. I’m sorry, I will never pay for this garbage “news” and neither will anyone under the age of 50 (who isn’t trying to be some hotshot “newsreader” person to impress colleagues and potential mates with his knowledge of garbage news).

Sortinghat (profile) says:

Does anybody remember in the *Bush* era you didn’t have paywalls? They thought that digital ads would cover it and it worked until smartphones came out and the economy died after 08.

Also the news sites were easier to navigate instead of being smartphone UI which looks like a kids crayola crayon set.

Often I feel I am going to the same site over and over so gave up on news sites and stick to alt news which is now being shut down by Liberals as *fake news*. God!

I hope this isn’t part of the one world religion coming.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Does anybody remember in the Bush era you didn’t have paywalls?”

Are you dumb enough to believe that has anything to do with Bush? Please don’t tell me you believe that the president dictates newspaper business models.

“the economy died after 08”

No, it was dying before 08, Shrub just managed to bail before the global economic collapse he oversaw reached its peak.

“Also the news sites were easier to navigate instead of being smartphone UI which looks like a kids crayola crayon set”

Most sites let you switch between mobile and desktop formats, and usually let you choose one format permanently if you have a login. The poor choices of the UI designers of the sites you frequent have nothing to do with the politics you’re trying to inject here.

“Often I feel I am going to the same site over and over so gave up on news sites”

Funny thing about facts and news – when they’re true and relevant, people often end up talking about the same subject. What separates sources is the additional value, editorial and investigation they offer. The facts remain unchanged. If you tire of reading the “same thing” and gravitate toward “unique” news, consider the fact that the reason nobody else is talking about it might be because the author made it up.

“so gave up on news sites and stick to alt news which is now being shut down by Liberals as fake news

Did you every consider that the reason why is because those “alt” sites you frequent are in fact lying to you? How would you know if you’ve rejected all true sources as too “liberal” because they challenged your cozy little bubble?

“I hope this isn’t part of the one world religion coming.”

I’d prefer the zero world religion myself, but unlike the right-wing fundamentalists I’m not going to try imposing my preferences on everybody else. But, let’s face reality – there isn’t going to be a “one world religion”, certainly not in our lifetime. Hell, Christians can’t agree among themselves which of their hundreds/thousands of sects is the “right” one, let alone patch up their differences with other religions.

blusterbutt says:

Yo mamma!

Newspapers have been angrily punishing online users since they were forced to have an online presence or die completely. You see the same thing at libraries, between book lovers and readers that use devices (which could possibly store the entire content of the library, if they wanted.)

A simple, cutting edge newspaper that serves both sides of the gibbering-idiot masses; with simple, non-intrusive ads would easily dominate the market in both ad sales, and readership. Allowing comments is key, however, as one can only read so much news before they start to wretch, and the comments are what build a community. Long term users will show up just to chat with their friends.

It is almost like the newspapers hate success and money. They have an ideal platform for their businesses to expand indefinitely and at a fraction of the previous cost and trouble. BUT, that’s the thing! The newspapers are in the PROPAGANDA business, not the advertising business as this article states. That’s why they want to limit readers to a certain type (usually favored by the owner of the paper,) and keep only certain types of advertisers that agree with the same mindset. The advertisers are constantly threatening to pull their ads, unless they agree with the content.

Nomadcrypto says:

Boycott pay per view sites

I will never pay for an article and in fact if I see any mention of it whatsoever I will never visit that site again. This means I refuse to read forbes for example. If they didn’t display ads I still probably wouldn’t pay but since they display ads I for sure never will pay.

I understand that they are a business and that people who write for them need to be paid a livable wage but there are methods of doing that outside of trying to force people into paying.

Alan says:

News sites pay per

The news sites that post their news stories on the internet want to be paid to read their story. I would not pay them a dime nor unblock my ad blocker. I can just type in the story and get it from others. They wish to be intrusive plus run my life on what I wish to do with it. The main ones are New York Times and Washington Post among others. I do not wish to have pop ups from anyone which is my right. I have blocked over the past two years over 500,000 intrusive ads and others. They can ask, threaten and plead all they want. I am not paying for stories on the internet, period.

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