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And so goes the frustrating, backward logic of the journalism paywall. It’s the most popular income idea to arise since the newspaper industry was flooded with low-budget competitors, and it seems like the last best hope for profits as Google and Facebook strangle independent advertising sales.
It’s also a fundamentally flawed business model that goes against the best interests of journalists and their readers, and for the most part, it’s doomed to fail.
Paywalls are rock solid — until there’s big news
Most major newspapers have rolled out some variation of the “metered paywall” — for example, you get 10 articles a month for free, then you have to subscribe to read more. They’ve also rapidly revealed the absurdity of this concept every time there’s been serious news to report.
There’s a hurricane — take down the paywall.
There’s an election — take down the paywall.
We’ve got an exclusive! Damn the paywall.
The paywall is inherently in conflict with journalism’s primary goal: to educate and inform the public about important issues. When the papers say, “this is so important that we’re making it free,” they’re simultaneously saying that all the other stuff they publish doesn’t really matter, so they’ll charge you for it. It’s hard to imagine a business philosophy that’s more upside-down.
Paywalls entice newspapers to keep you clicking
The second subtle message of the paywall is that the newspapers’ most valuable readers are the ones who can’t stop reading. The publicaton’s financial success rests upon compelling you to hit your limits, so they can inconvenience you just enough to get you to fork over some cash.
Take a moment to consider the emotions you feel every time you hit one of these barriers. You start to engage with an interesting story, then you’re slapped with a pop-up. You roll your eyes. A strange mix of indignity and disgust washes over you. And most of the time, you click away.
You don’t need an MBA to realize that it’s less than ideal for your customers to feel disgusted by you immediately before you ask them for money. This isn’t a manipulative casino or carnival game — your readers are thoughtful intellectuals with abundant choices, not conversions to be optimized.
Paywalls may eke out a profit, but they also accelerate a newspaper’s nightmare scenario — that readers will leave the site, try the free stuff, and decide it’s pretty much the same. Or worse, they might just put down their phones and go outside.
This is the opposite of how human brains work in the ink-and-paper world. When you buy a physical publication, you decide whether it’s valuable before you read — and the publisher doesn’t care if you subsequently read one article or 20. Likewise, print newspapers sell ads based on past circulation data, not how many people are going to see today’s article if it goes viral. The Internet business models reward future traffic rather than the authority and prestige that come from years of honest, serious reporting. They push for more news, trendier news and faster news, and they discourage calm, thoughtful, responsible journalism.
Medium, which introduced its own subscription program this year, is a useful counterpoint. They’re selling access to articles, but I’d argue their product is really an experience rather than a publication. That experience is valuable specifically because it’s so calm and focused, and it lends itself to a calmer sales process and deeper, more engaging articles behind the wall. The Partner Program isn’t perfect, but it is an example of how strong differentiation makes paywalls more viable and reduces the need for disruptive sales pitches intended to capture fly-by readers who’d otherwise wander away.
‘We’re just not that into you’
The paywall forces newspapers to confront the most jarring problem of the Internet age: to charge your readers money, you have to offer them something that’s actually worth paying for.
The reality is that 80 percent of current-events news is interchangeable, regardless of your source. If you’re looking for today’s top stories, you can pick from a limitless list of vendors and walk away with a very similar body of knowledge. If you run out of newspapers, try a TV network instead. If you’re bored of American publications, you’ll be delighted to discover that many international papers cover America too. Even at the ideological extremes, the broad strokes of what’s in the news are pretty much the same.
If news is cheap, opinion is cheaper. And yet, the paywall has encouraged publications to become more opinionated and more extreme, in the hopes their readers will be more likely to subscribe to a paper that vehemently agrees with them. “We’re not just any pundits — we’re the pundits who aggressively validate your existing beliefs and justify your anger.”
Publications that hope to survive online are left with a challenge: Can we subsist on advertising, and all the perverse incentives that come with it? Or can we actually produce something that’s valuable, meaningful and different? That’s the only way to build a responsible wall, asking readers to pay in advance instead of soliciting them when they’ve clicked too much.
It’s an old-school proposal, and it’s scary. It means being judged by quality instead of clicks, by honesty instead of eyeballs. It also might just make the Internet a healthy place to read the news.
Rob Howard is the author of Hiatus, a free, weekly current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions. In five minutes a week, you get the knowledge you need to be an informed, responsible citizen.