As more newspapers move to paywalls, it comes clearer to me that publishers are attempting to use a Band-Aid to cover a bullet hole. I share an anecdote:
I asked my class of 20-year-old Elon University students how many were on Facebook. All 33 raised their hands. Many of them suggested they were addicted to the social network. (It was all I could do to keep them off Facebook during class.) I asked how many would pay $1 a month for Facebook membership. All raised their hands.
“Five dollars?” I asked. A few dropped out.
“Ten dollars a month?” I asked. Nearly every hand stayed down.
“No one?” I said. “I thought you guys were addicted?”
A student piped up with an explanation: “Someone will invent something else to take its place that is free.”
I shared this anecdote with a newspaper executive when we were talking about newspaper paywalls. I said that if people wouldn’t pay for Facebook, they wouldn’t pay to get through a newspaper paywall. His response was dismissive. “They aren’t our readers anyway.”
No, they’re not, even though they should be: college-educated, inquisitive, relatively well-to-do and can afford the price of a paper or paywall. They won’t be newspaper readers in five or 10 years, either, when newspapers traditionally have expected them to subscribe to the newsprint edition and, presumably, the paywall. They will have been trained not to go to the newspaper website.
I can understand paywalls as a leaky short-term strategy, catching some newspaper readers who are addicted to their local papers. But without significant “value-added” content, that won’t last. Paywalls can’t be a long-term strategy; the audience will not be there.