Erecting a paywall? Make sure everything behind it is better than before

The newspaper paywall debate continues, apparently unabated. (I’m in Steve Buttry’s, Mathew Ingram’s and Howard Owens’ camp, by the way.) Now, as more papers are considering erecting paywalls — including in N.C. —  I will add one more thought to the discussion.

If you are going to start charging me for something that was previously free, you’d better start adding some serious value. By that I mean more content, faster downloads, intuitive navigation, precise search, easy-access commenting, no pop-up ads or pop-unders or pop-anywheres, quick response to questions and complaints, and more content. Oh, did I say that already? I should have said unique content. After all, TV will make the morning newspaper report commodity news as soon as the paper hits the street.

I appreciate the need to assign a monetary value to your journalism. It’s hard, important and worthy work. It’s valuable. When the website is open and free, you get what you pay for. But once a fee is charged, I expect more. So, if the paywall is erected and there’s not much change to the site behind the wall? I’m going to feel taken advantage of. Gypped even. Bad idea making a customer feel he’s been duped, particularly when people are already having trust issues with the industry.

But a vibrant site filled with vital stories and photos and video that I can’t get anywhere else? Where I can talk with people at the paper in real time? (And not just the journalists — after all, advertising is half the paper, so why isn’t someone in advertising online? Marketing? Circulation?) You get the idea. Add value and we can talk.

Thursday update: Steve Buttry in the comments: “The mindset of most people operating paywalls is that they deserve to be paid for what they are doing. But the marketplace sets value. If you’re charging in a marketplace where free is the prevailing value, you’d better have outstanding content (tough to do when you just bought out a bunch of your best journalists).”

17 thoughts on “Erecting a paywall? Make sure everything behind it is better than before

  1. Metered models make sense where the content is unique. If you are going to put the same water cooler videos and “talker” stories behind a wall, forget it. But local sports, columns, blogs and other exclusively local content? Absolutely.

  2. Well said, John! The mindset of most people operating paywalls is that they deserve to be paid for what they are doing. But the marketplace sets value. If you’re charging in a marketplace where free is the prevailing value, you’d better have outstanding content (tough to do when you just bought out a bunch of your best journalists).

    • Totally agree. If a business plan has the word “should” in it — as in people “should” pay for this because it is valuable — that business plan lives outside of the real world.

  3. I think the biggest problem with newspapers right now is the disconnect between what they think their content is worth and the actual value to the consumer. It’s like the homeowner who spends $50k for a new kitchen and thinks their house is now $50k more valuable. The reality is that their house is worth what someone is willing to pay for it regardless of how much the new kitchen cost.

    What’s interesting is that people are not paying for print journalism right now. I am not sure if the subscription fees even cover the printing and delivery. It definitely does not pay for the journalism. Why then with a product with no printing or distribution fees do we think we can start charging for journalism? It has never been done before. The real issue facing local sites is developing an advertising model that supports the journalism. It does not exist right now. The biggest challenge lies with national companies spending through ad networks. If you pulled the plug on the national advertising in print and relied mainly on local and classified, the print model would not work.

    People expect the internet to be free. I have no subscriptions on the internet. Google, facebook, gmail, could all justify their value to themselves and start charging customers. But they don’t because they know what would happen: Everyone would just jump to the free option. People expect to pay for print. People do not expect to pay for web.

    Time Warner experienced that when they thought they could strong arm a rate increase and that people won’t possibly think of dropping their cable. Might have been true 10 years ago without internet options, but not anymore. They learned that the hard way.

    The last thing newspapers should do right now is force readers out to find another way to spend their mornings and to look for other sources for their news. In this age with so many options, once they leave it’s likely they will never come back. Newspapers cannot afford that gamble right now.

  4. John, I am leaning towards two sites here. One for the commodity news that would be free and one with the unique content and features, including interactivity, that is behind the paywall. The biggest issue is finding enough people like you and I who would pay enough for that content to support the creation of the content. I’m not sure how many newspapers these days can pull this off given that many have slashed the staffs it takes to create the content. It’s a tricky slope and I fear you only get one chance to get it right or continue to bleed slowly to death. Sad to say this after 37+ years in the business before being “retired”.

  5. The problem with paywalls is that some in the newspaper world still believe they are in the information business. The problem is they’re in the audience business. We can go back to the penny press days, if you’d like, but that was before a whole gaggle of disruptive innovations came along, like radio, TV and the Internet. Advertising is in full disruption, but newspaper people never investigate that. Sad.

  6. jph you hit it on the head.
    “I think the biggest problem with newspapers right now is the disconnect between what they think their content is worth and the actual value to the consumer. It’s like the homeowner who spends $50k for a new kitchen and thinks their house is now $50k more valuable. The reality is that their house is worth what someone is willing to pay for it regardless of how much the new kitchen cost.”

    Perception is what it is all about. The public does not realize what they are missing on local content and is not willing to pay for it. Newspapers have not sold the public on their local content. The public feels what they receive from Google, local TV etc. is all they need. If newspapers erect a paywall for all their content viewership will continue to drop for newspaper websites.

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  8. I can’t contrast the cost of producing and delivering print news with that of producing it online because I don’t have exact figures for either. Working at the News & Record, I did learn that costs of ink and paper were becoming almost prohibitive. (I can’t remember the exact figure when it came to yearly increases percentage wise, but 10-14% keeps nagging me. I could be wrong, but whatever the figure it always struck me as rather outside the bounds of other price increases.) I also learned that 80% of revenue for the paper came from advertising. With that in mind and considering that no ink and paper are required for digital news, I can’t see why any decent publsiher couldn’t have a two tiered system. A paywall for those who don’t wish to be bugged with ads and pop ups and free access for those who don’t mind.

    If you’ll excuse me while I stray from the topic of paywalls, I would like to comment on the wonderful days I worked at the News & Record. In all my 54 years in public work, it was one of the best jobs I had. Oh, certainly we are all human and no matter where or when we all have our gripes and frustrations. But they seemed to fade a little quicker at N&R. The mangement model was good and so were managers and regular employees alike. I loved the pressroom with that mighty machine, the one sadly lumbering towards obsolescence. Done in by a binary code. (“lumbering towards obsolescence”? “done in by a binary code”? Hmmm. Can ya say Boulware-Lytton?) .

    Gettting back to paywalls. I still get home delivery. I very seldom go online to the N&R site.If it got to the point that the print edition ceased to be, I’m certain I would not pay money to get my news online.

    The New York Times regular price for digital is $3.75 per week. $194.00 per year It looks like their print is $629.20 per year. I guess most would choose the paywall.

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