Monday, April 15, 2013

Are paywalls the newspaper industry's salvation?

Ever more newspapers establish paywalls in order to get money out of netizens who happen to check for latest news. To be fair, when Rupert Murdoch started this craze (at the London Times), there was much mockery around, people promising to abandon the site etc etc. Murdoch started charging, of course, many years ago. Since then many newspapers who mocked him for his approach ('you are going from millions of visitors access your website to a few thousand or hundred thousand') are copying him. The thing is, while the newspaper is now read by significantly less people than it was prior to the paywall going up, the paywall is generating more money than the digital ads ever managed to.

Since then man other newspapers have begun doing the same. The Globe and Mail in Canada, The Telegraph in Britain, The Age in Australia are just a few examples for this emerging trend. Many more are following them as I write this. Usually you get a limited number of articles that you may read without paying for access, but then you've got to pay if you want more. Currently there is an easy way around paying. You simply clean your browser history (ie eliminate 'cookies') and you are back to zero as far as the article count is concerned. Realistically, however, some computer wiz employed by the newspapers will stop this subversive behaviour. And frankly, so they should.

Obviously, it is not unreasonable for newspapers to charge for what they deliver. There's a difference between investigative journalism produced by the New York Times and opinion journalism delivered free of charge by the Huffington Post. The problem I foresee, however, is that most people, when deciding to pay for access to a news website, will probably go for the best quality news outlet out there. Accordingly, the New York Times is rapidly racking up on-line subscribers. I cannot imagine the same would occur with regard to papers not delivering the same level of quality. To give you a good example of this: The New York Times has a habit of firing known plagiarists. Compare that to a Toronto based daily paper where a known plagiarist is still in full employ. If you had to decide where to spend your hard earned cash, would you swipe your credit card at the New York Times with its still impeccable standards or an alternative such as the Toronto paper. It seems to be a no-brainer to me. You might grab the few locally relevant pieces from the Toronto paper, but for in-depth journalism you'd spend your money at the New York Times or papers like it (and there are very few).

The other problem for the unnamed Toronto newspaper (and its equivalents in Britain, Down Under, Berlin, and wherever else), is that they are under-resourced, and it is widely known that they are under-resourced. Why would you want to spend your money to access the website of a newspaper that you now already isn't on top of its game due to a lack of journalistic resources?

To me, that seems to be the next problem in the paywall revolution. Many mainstream national newspapers, I suspect, will be going down, because they don't deliver the quality required to stay in the game any longer. Funnily, niche players such as the German taz newspaper (an unorthodox leftish daily paper) might have a decent shot at survival, because they have a dedicated audience not interested in reading only what the New York Times has on offer.

Either way, the paywall revolution might well be the last hurrah of many mainstay newspapers before they disappear altogether. We all will be worse off for it, I suspect. Will this regret make me subscribe to the plagiarist-employing Toronto paper. Who am I kidding?


  1. I wonder if you would agree (or perhaps are even hinting) that a 'lesser' mainstream investigative paper might be able to survive if it has (or develops) either an editorial line that differs substantively from that of the NYT or a niche cluster of investigative specialties.

    Let's face it - the NYT does have an editorial bias, one which eventually comes out even in its investigative reporting over time, and, although that reporting is generally well done, especially compared to most of its competitors worldwide, it's definitely not perfect. Clearly a number of smaller alternative outlets are able to get by (or better), but is this an approach that other North American mainstream newspapers should also take up?

  2. I don't know, of course, crystal ball watching :-). It is true, papers such as the TAZ in Germany cater to a leftish niche market, but they barely make it. I'm not sure a true mainstream paper could survive on the TAZ financial strategies, for instance. Good question tho, which kinds of specialization might permit economic survival.


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