The Paywall Conundrum: Even Those Who Like Paying For News Don't Pay For Much News
from the just-one-site dept
For years, we’ve tended to mock newspaper paywalls — not because we don’t want to see news publishers get paid (that would actually be good!), but because it just doesn’t seem like a really sustainable way to build a news product for nearly every publication. In other words, nearly all media paywalls are destined to fail — often spectacularly — because they can’t generate nearly enough paying subscribers. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. Large general interest news sites like the NY Times and the Washington Post seem to have made it work. Small, narrowly focused sites can sometimes get by as well — if their content is unique and special enough. But most general interest news sites are unlikely to be able to make it work — and a new study drives home that point. Even for people who like paying for news, they tend to only pay for one news subscription. Really.
As publishers worldwide put up paywalls and start requiring payment for their content ? about 50 percent of respondents in the U.S, Denmark, Australia, and the Netherlands say they bump into one or more paywalls each week when reading news; that figure is 70 percent in Norway ? ?we find only a small increase in the numbers paying for any online news ? whether by subscription, membership, or donation,? the researchers write. Following the Trump bump of 2017, the percentage of U.S. respondents who pay for news in the U.S. is stable at 16%, and stable at 11% in an average of nine other countries. Norway and Sweden are seeing particular success in getting people to pay up ? and ?industry data reveal that Norwegians and Swedes are prepared to pay online for tabloid titles VG and Aftenbladet (premium models) as well as more upmarket titles such as AftenPosten and Dagens Nyheter.?
In the U.S., by contrast, ?the main subscription focus has been at the quality end of the market.? The people who pay for news in the U.S. are wealthier and better educated than those who do not.
No matter how rich and educated they are, though, most people are only paying for one subscription. ?The average (median) number of news subscriptions per person among those that pay is one in almost every country.?
And here’s the thing: unless you’re pretty damn confident that enough people will buy into your paywall, moving to a paywall likely forecloses the ability to succeed with most other business models, by vastly limiting your audience (some publishers try to have it both ways with a “leaky” paywall, in which it’s not that difficult to get around it, but more and more sites appear to be moving away from the more leaky options).
This is why I still think there are better approaches. Get past the idea of a paywall — which is clearly a negative for users — and focus on adding value for people who want to pay, rather than punishing those who don’t or are unable to do so. It’s why we here at Techdirt focus on a kind of membership model for what we do — encouraging people to pay to support us, not to “get around a paywall” or to “read the news,” but to get extra, useful, valuable features. Some may argue that these are basically the same thing, but I think the difference is extremely important. A paywall is about locking up the news. A membership model is one in which we make our content available, but save certain features and access to those who are willing to support us more fully. One is about putting up barriers and tollbooths, and the other is about offering a better reason to support, while expecting that the free news still continues to drive more support of the other offerings. In other words, it’s a complementary business model that can work in conjunction with other stuff, rather than counter to it. Plus, it’s just more respectful for your community.