Missing Link Friday — Paywall Edition

I love newspapers and read lots of them. But I don’t love any one newspaper so much that I’d pay hundreds of dollars a year to read it online. The kind of package I could be persuaded to pay for would be a subscription to a bundle of my favourite newspapers and magazines. But newspapers that are erecting paywalls seem to be stuck in the print world where readers start their day with one or two papers. And maybe the print world isn’t such a bad place to be.

Some commentators argue that the purpose of a paywall isn’t to keep online readers out, it’s to keep print subscribers in. According to Mathew Ingram: "the main driving force for instituting a paywall is to keep print readers from migrating away from buying the physical product (which still generates the majority of advertising revenue at most newspapers) to reading for free online, where their eyeballs are worth less than they would be in print."

Last year at Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts explained how only 35 people signed up for Newsday’s $5 a week online subscription plan. According to Potts, Newsday was happy to lose readers who were outside its target audience — people who live on Long Island. Owned by cable tv company Cablevision, Newsday gave away online subscriptions to print subscribers and Cablevision customers but saw little value in attracting readers outside of Long Island. Potts says the strategy seems to be working just fine.

In 2009 the American Journalism Review carried an article by Paul Farhi arguing that newspapers might be better off focusing on their print audience instead of persuading readers to migrate to an online product.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about the New York Times’ decision to erect a paywall. At Crikey, Margaret Simons writes:

… it is … significant and interesting that the pitch from publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger jnr is not about whizzbang new features or reader experience. The benefit he is offering is the continuation of the NYT as a news organisation. “It is an important step we hope you will see as an investment in the Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform.”

But do readers really love journalism that much? Do they buy the view that it is essential to the good life?

A number of newspapers already have paywalls. The Australian Financial Review’s content is so well defended that it’s hardly worth logging on even if you have a subscription. Almost all of the functions that online users take for granted are intentionally disabled at the AFR (eg cutting and pasting paragraphs into an email or blog).

The NYT follows a model pioneered by the Financial Times that limits non-subscribers to a small number of articles each month. Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com is convinced the NYT can make the model work. Felix Salmon at Reuters is also optimistic … ish. Michael De Gusta at the Understatement thinks the NYT is delusional.

The NYT will charge between $15 and $35 a month depending on how you want to access their content. Thirty five dollars gets you access through a smartphone app, a tablet app and via the web on your computer. However if you’re one of a select group of NYT readers you may be offered a free subscription courtesy of one of its advertisers, Lincoln.

Ever since the NYT’s announced its paywall, bloggers have been sharing tips on how to get around it. Here are a few:

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger doesn’t seem too worried about these workarounds . At a recent Media Council roundtable discussion he said: "It’ll be mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work" who use them.

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12 years ago

I think the problem all the mainstream Australian papers will have is that they simply don’t offer anything that you can’t find elsewhere — their journalists that write opinions etc. are generally woeful. For example, I notice from time to time that the Australian seems to think that it will go behind a paywall, but are people really going to pay for Janet Albrechtson, Dennis Shanahan etc. ? I don’t think so (and presumably they really don’t either, which I guess is why it never does).

On an entirely different note, looking through some of those links, I notice that netflix is 7.99 a month for anything you want to watch in the US. Surely that is going to be the end of pay TV once everyone has fast connections.

12 years ago

If the NY Times wants users to pay, they should give a really good reason for paying, like personalized content maybe.
Nice writeup and thanks for including my blog.

12 years ago

On an entirely different note, looking through some of those links, I notice that netflix is 7.99 a month for anything you want to watch in the US. Surely that is going to be the end of pay TV once everyone has fast connections.

You can get movies through the post on DVD for $30 per month in Aus right now (with no volume limit other than how fast you can watch them and stuff them back into the post box), but there’s only so many movies you can watch. Admittedly, Pay TV has sports and stuff that doesn’t lend itself to postal distribution, and that really comes down to argument over who is paying for the rights (free to air TV vs pay TV) nothing to do with the transport medium.

Given that typical Pay TV is around $70 per month, there must be considerable financial pressure discouraging uptake.

Nicholas Gruen
12 years ago

Don, I wonder if you’re committing an offence against digital rights management letting people know of paywall busters? I guess not.

paul walter
paul walter
12 years ago

#5, Lets hope so. Tear down the walls!
Conrad is asking if content is substandard, what is the point of subscribing? Too bloody right!
The real problem is the misrepresentatation that has the tabloid world propose itself as the legitimate source of “news”.
They DO know what “news” is but won’t include it, especially at the expense of the latest claptrap about Britney Spears’ sex life, etc.
I call,”false advertising”.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
12 years ago


In the USA, possibly, depending on how you read the DMCA. However Don is at least two links removed from the act of circumventing the paywalls.

Of course I am not a lawyer etc.

I’ve resumed work on my startup of 08-09 under the guise of an honours project. Essentially I envisage a payment scheme that essentially renders paywalls obsolete. I am not alone in this field — similar companies include Kachingle and Readability.