All about paywalls

Ira BasenIt looks like paywalls are going to be a fact of life, writes Ira Basen, after The New York Times announced plans to raise a “metered paywall” on its website.  But not all readers should be treated equally.

The Beatles once declared that “the best things in life are free”. 

Of course, in another song, they also demanded “give me money, that’s what I want”.

It’s useful to keep both those conflicting ideas in mind as the relentless search to discover a viable business model for news in the digital economy continues to unfold.

The latest development occurred on Jan. 20, when The New York Times announced that sometime in 2011, the free ride for online Times’ readers will be coming to an end. Sort of.

After months of deliberation, the Times decided to implement a “metered” paywall. That means readers will continue to get free access to Times stories until they reach a  limit that has yet to be determined. Then they will have to pay a fee that has also not yet been determined.

To meter or not to meter

Dollar SignThe metered paywall stands in sharp contrast to the unmetered wall of two of the Times local rivals, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and the Long Island-based Newsday. Visitors to those sites have to pay to access almost everything.

And how’s that working out? Pretty well for the Journal. It offers business news not widely available elsewhere to a high end readership for not much more than the price of a few good cigars.

But Newsday is a different story. Last October, the paper’s new publishers decided to put its website,, behind a paywall, one of the first non-business papers to take the plunge. Visitors were asked to pay US$5 a week, or US$260 a year for the privilege of accessing content online. So far, a grand total of 35 people have signed up.  No wonder the Times has chosen to go down a different road!

Another brick in the wall

Still, there are several oddities about the Times’ plan. What they are effectively doing is punishing their most loyal and dedicated online readers. Casual visitors to the site can continue to browse for free, but hard core Times junkies will be the ones who will be asked to pay up when the meter kicks in.

And most people these days don’t access stories by going to mainstream media sites. They get there through search engines and news aggregators. According to the Times plan, if you access their articles through one of these back door channels, it will not count against your total number of visits. This will have the effect of driving even more readers away from the Times portal, making it less attractive to advertisers.

But there is one important group of readers that the Times plan will be rewarding. Subscribers to the print edition of the paper will continue to get free access to everything on the paper’s website.      

Value added

This makes a lot of sense. Print eyeballs are more valuable to advertisers than online eyeballs. A healthy print subscription base remains critical to the financial health of mainstream newspapers and magazines.  

And yet, it seems most publishers haven’t figured this out. They do very little to attract new print subscribers and hold on to the ones they’ve got. One simple step is to do what the Times is planning to do: reward those print subscribers by giving them access to online content that is not freely available to non-subscribers. It’s called value-added, and it works.

Globe plus or minus?

I subscribe to The Globe and Mail. And yet, if I want to read an article that appeared in the paper last month, I’m told I have to join Globe Plus for $15.95 a month plus tax. That’s just slightly less than I pay to have the paper delivered to my door every morning.  

As a Globe Plus subscriber, I can access up to a hundred articles a month from the  paper’s archives, going back to January 1, 2000.  

But why should I have to pay to do that? I’ve already paid once to read the article, why are they asking me for more? Make the freeloaders pay! Don’t penalize subscribers. And why am I limited to 100 articles, and why can I only go back ten years?

Magazines aren’t much better. I can access the same content on The Walrus or Maclean’s websites whether I subscribe to the print magazine or not. And yet my subscription to Harper’s magazine gives me unlimited access to a quarter million pages of their archives going back to 1850.  Non-subscribers are out of luck.

Information can’t be free

Of course, in an ideal world, all information should be free, but these are tough economic times, and until someone comes up with a better solution to the problem of how to make money in the news business, it looks like paywalls are going to be a fact of life.  

But not all readers should be treated equally. It makes sense for publishers to try to attract new print subscribers and reward existing ones by providing them with a hole in the wall to walk through. Subscribers have earned the right to get access to online content that others will have to pay for.

Basen is a former senior producer at CBC’s
Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of
programs including
The Inside Track (1985), This Morning
(1997) and
Workology (2001), as
well as several special series, including
Spin Cycles (2007) and News 2.0 (2009). His writing has appeared in Saturday
Night, The Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He currently teaches at Ryerson University
and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is a
co-author of the Canadian edition of
Book of Lists

(Image by pfala. Used under Creative Commons license.)