Once More With Feeling: Nearly All General Interest News Paywalls Will Fail

from the if-you're-not-one-of-the-giants dept

Just a few weeks ago we pointed out (for not the first time) that news paywalls for general interest publications did not seem likely to succeed outside of a very small number of exceptions: mainly three giant east coast newspapers which have established themselves as key news sources: the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (arguably the last one, with its focus on finance, might not even count as “general interest”). In that last post, we pointed out that even people who liked to pay for news tended to only subscribe to a single news source. That helps create a winner take all proposition where only a very small number (see above) can actually build a sustainable business model through an internet paywall.

And that means that even if you’re a pretty well known newspaper, falling outside the big ones, it means you’re going to be in trouble. Witness the LA Times failing paywall. As Nieman Lab notes, in terms of paper subscriptions, the LA Times used to rank above the Washington Post. But it didn’t make the transition to digital the way the Post did:

Digital subscriptions at the Los Angeles Times are way below expectations, and leadership, in a memo to staff, said the future of the paper could depend on solving the issue rapidly.

Whether due to unrealistic expectations or editorial and business failures, the Times is nowhere close to meeting its digital subscription goal. The Times had hoped to double its digital subscriptions from just more than 150,000 to 300,000 this year ? a number that would have to be doubled again, the memo said, to come close to covering editorial costs. But midway through the year, the Times is nowhere near that number, having netted only 13,000 digital subscriptions in 2019.

As the article notes, the LA Times basically missed the boat here, despite having a wealthy owner who could have invested a ton of money.

Of course, part of the problem here is focusing solely on paywalls as a solution. As seen by the three success stories, it can work, but in a winner-take-all kind of market, you need to be a winner, and the LA Times was not positioned to do that. And the LA Times hasn’t done much to distinguish itself as to why you’d want to subscribe to it rather than its competitors.

And it doesn’t look like the paper is going to figure it out any time soon. So far it’s plan seems to be wishful thinking:

In a memo sent to staff on Monday afternoon and obtained by Poynter, Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine and Managing Editor Scott Kraft wrote, ?Our future depends on rapid and substantial subscription revenue growth.? They added, ?Performance for the first half of the year ? has been disappointing.?

That’s the wrong approach. Subscription growth would be one way to increase revenue — but to do that you have to give people a reason to subscribe, and just doing the same things as those other newspapers isn’t going to cut it. I’m surprised that the LA Times hasn’t, instead, decided to buck the paywall trend and go in the other direction. Why not focus on opening itself up, building up traffic, and providing an alternative to the east coast papers who got all the subscribers by doing strong reporting, and then layering in other, better business models?

Unfortunately, the newspaper business keeps making the same mistakes over and over again and refuses to get creative. The possible demise of the LA Times is just one symptom of that failure to innovate.

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Comments on “Once More With Feeling: Nearly All General Interest News Paywalls Will Fail”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It’s not that hard to say, and it doesn’t require as many words.

The moment I see a paywall, I go elsewhere.

I don’t mind ads, as long as they don’t have viruses, don’t treat me like an idiot and don’t make my computer crawl: in short, don’t annoy me.

But paying for being lied to? First get your journalism fixed, then we talk afterwards about your payment.

TwiztidJuggla420 (profile) says:

It is not difficult to get around paywalls if one really wants to. With that being said I rarely bother with paywall sites. If I click on an article and get one of those paywall popups I usually just blacklist the domain on my network to prevent it from happening again. Paywalls aren’t worth my time and 99% of all articles will be covered elsewhere by non-paywall sites. Also almost 100% of the articles I read are tech related. I wouldn’t go to any of those websites for tech news any way, to be honest.

Anonymous Coward says:

It makes sense nyt is the market leader in news, arts, political reporting,
wall st journal has all the reporting on business and finance.
Theres no room in the market for an average newspaper with a limited budget to attract new customers to a paywall .
maybe someone might pay for 1 or 2 paywalls and read news
on most news websites that do not have paywall,s .

Anonymous Coward says:

Local News

I would be glad to pay a reasonable fee for a publication that did nothing but local and some regional news. Most of the general interest outlets mostly duplicate what is more abundantly available elsewhere, like the Big Two. Local information, dealing with everything from zoning changes to transportation to the actions and discipline of "law enforcement", etc., is being lost unless you want to do a lot of what journalists do on your own (often without the same access). And it’s much more relevant to people’s lives than much of what’s contained in the general interest press.

Anon says:


If you want people to come to your site, you have to offer something out of the ordinary. As others posted – regular news, you can get from anywhere. Local stories – you need to provide more than the local radio and TV stations which don’t (yet) have a paywall revenue problem.

The solution IMHO is to provide more in depth, more analysis, more detail – the stuff not covered by 30-second sound bite media, and too esoteric or too local to merit country-wide media’s attention. In-depth analysis of what the city councillors are up to; the infighting in the mayor’s office. The details on the plans for the new expressway or subway, not just regurgitating the press release.

Guess what? That costs money. You will have to pay real reporters and experts to do real digging. The newspaper "Extra" died decades ago because the same news was more immediate in broadcast. Papers survived because they could provide more detail. The NYTimes Sunday was over 2 inches thick, even the non-local edition.

I assume a few teaser articles free to prove the paper’s worth might be used; but you won’t know whether the in-depth model works until you try.

I assume new tech can help – the speech-to-text tech can speed composing new stories, for example. But- nothing replaces old fashioned digging for detail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why?

the speech-to-text tech can speed composing new stories, for example.

I’m not all that sure that it can? It can help speed up research by converting verbal council meetings etc. into more easily searchable text files, but (at least for people who spend some time doing it) typing is at least as fast speaking for actually composing the stories.

Code Monkey (profile) says:

Can paywalls work?

IMNTBHO, I would be willing to pay for a digital subscription if, like many here have said, you gave me in-depth analysis on the subject. More than I would find looking elsewhere. If I’m going to PAY for you service, I expect to had NO ADS.

On the flip side, if you want to show me A FEW ads, and give me the "50,000 foot" view of a story, along with a link to sign up for the digital subscription, I might be more inclined to visit your site. IF the part if the article you show me on the free site is demonstrative of your writing/reporting.

I agree with Mike, though. I think most people tend to get most of their information from a handful of source. I have techdirt as one of the pages that is automatically opened when my browser starts…. 🙂

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