Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sorry, we're just not that into you: 2013 may be the year metro papers find paywalls are not the panacea

If you've ever studied social trends you know that one can spot a trend's end not when fewer people are doing something, but before that, before it peaks, but when the growth begins to slow down. I think 2013 will that time for newspapers and paywalls.

More and more papers will be launching paywalls this year, or will be in their first full year of them being implemented. For many publishers the shock of discovering that many readers simply do not feel their products are worth paying for will be painful. One can already see signs of this in the most some papers are making.

In Boston moves are afoot to "untangle" the two website the paper maintains: the free Boston.com and the paywall enclosed BostonGlobe.com. While advocates of paid content strategies continue to root for the Globe's site to succeed, the presence of Boston.com is a reminder that on the web, free generally attracts the readers.

The problem remains that there are limited circumstances where a paywall can succeed. The good news is that as time goes by the number of these, in my own mind at least, grows somewhat:

  • Financial news sites (such as the WSJ, FT)
  • National newspaper sites (such as the NYT)
  • Where news is still a monopoly or tightly controlled by the government
The experiment with paywalls was to find out if a loose monopoly, such as a metro paper, could make a paywall succeed. 2013 won't be the year that publishers see the results and change course. No, it is has taken them 20 years to change their Internet publishing direction, what makes you think they can change their thinking so quickly? No, many papers are setting a new direction and 2013 won't be the year they change that. 2013 will be the year, though, that shows many that the decision will not solve the industry's woes.

(Aside: I was, for a short while, a newspaper circulation manager, an interesting experience to say the least. Back then, when I ran some numbers concerning the home delivery prices we charged I quickly understood that the price for the newspaper was $0, the price was for home delivery. Also, the quarter we charged for the newspaper box copy was for production and distribution. In other words, the newspaper was always free for readers, even before the advent of the Internet website. The price reflected production and distribution.)

The Guardian will be holding a discussion on paywalls on Thursday of this week. The list of panelists appear to all have a vested interest in paywalls, so don't look for much objective discussion of the issue, but it may be entertaining, nonetheless.