The paywall has been touted as the financial savior of digital journalism. News sites created it based on the assumption that news-hungry readers are willing to pay to read the full version of articles they like. They would also be happy to commit to an online subscription if they were fervent followers of a particular publication.
Rousing success stories as well as alarming failures, however, indicate that the formula is not without its limitations. Nor is it a guarantee that paywalls will keep the readers interested enough to make them want to shell out their hard-earned money.
First, let’s get to the good part. European content aggregator Blendle is a testament that an online reading public will pay to download or have access to their favorite journalistic sources. Tech Crunch reports that it now has one million registered users who fork out 20 cents to read an article from one of the many publications that have made their content available on its platform.
Its initial establishment in Netherlands led to a 300 percent growth, which has captured readers from Germany and the U.S. as well. At this rate, 20 million articles on its site would be consumed or accessed by the end of 2016.
That’s one side of the story. The other, more dire version shows mainstream news publications suffering a loss of revenue and readership. BDlive rolls out the casualties: about 69 English-language newspapers dropped their paywalls in 2015, including The Toronto Star, The Independent, and The Sun. Money from subscribers has also been abysmal for the others who maintained them; paywall fees account for only one percent of the entire industry revenue in the U.S., and 10 percent globally.
One similarity that these failed paywall ventures share is that they offer content that one can easily find. There are legacy newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Financial Times with successful paywalls, and they succeeded primarily because they keep offering their readers unique content.
“Content has often been hailed as king but it is truly one-of-a-kind, rare content that cannot be found on any other site that rules,” says Dom Einhorn, founder of a worldly known business and finance news app.
Thousands of investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and decision makers open the app every day to get their daily dose of news from a broad range of categories. That includes investment, economy, mining, real estate, and technology, among others. Journalists behind the app curate stories from reputable global agencies. They summarize these into a more readable, bite-sized form of 80 words or less.
His team comprises journalists based on various regions of the world. Their experience on the ground ensure that they source stories that are relevant to users living in the same location.
“Readers click on one app and then move on to another, as their desire for information is voracious,” continues Einhorn. “What will make them stay with you is your content’s usefulness, and that comes with a diverse, deeper perspective that that would not be available elsewhere.”
Bending the rules
In the same way, the Journal remains a reading destination because of its thought-provoking and investigative pieces, says Nieman Lab. It currently has 948,000 digital-only subscribers, with plans of expanding that into 3 million in the near future. Yet even this legacy media, which has survived the transition into the digital era, refuses to rest on its laurels. It is always looking for ways to retain and grow its readership.
That strategy includes bending the rules of paywall, which can turn potential readers off by its very exclusion. The Journal offers guest passes that will allow a curious newcomer to read any of its articles for 24 hours. The only thing that the site asks in return is the user’s email address.
The Journal also capitalizes on the popularity of some of its guest columnists. The entire article becomes available to the followers those columnists who click on its shared link on social media. In time, they might want to pay for a subscription to get constant access.
Regardless of whether paywalls are rigid or flexible, revenue and its ability to sustain newspapers are hard business facts. Ultimately, the fate of digital journalism may lie in the hands of the readers. A lot of them resist the very idea of a paywall and the payment required. Simply, they had gotten used to getting online news for free.
However, as late-night talk show host John Oliver puts it, “The longer that we get something for free, the less willing we are to pay for it…But sooner or later, we are all going to have to pay for journalism, or we are going to pay for it.”
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