The Beneficial Impact of Newspaper Paywalls on Users

There continues to be fierce debate about the cost/benefits of newspaper paywalls, a debate Mathew Ingram has been helping drive with a great deal of depth and with excellent links.

It is interesting to watch Ingram take on, and have to rebut, the problematic thinking that seems to so frequently comes out of the Columbia Journalism Review which, sadly, as America’s most important journal on the industry and trainer of next generation journalist, is probably the most conservative voice in the debate. That said, while its contributions are defensive and disappointing, they are understandable. And well, it makes for fascinating reading of how people deal with an industry in decline/collapse/[insert whatever word you prefer here]. Someone should package these and make it mandatory stuff for MBA types.

Personally, I’m somewhat indifferent. If paywalls can save newspapers (every indication suggests that they cannot) then great! If they can’t… okay. The sky will not fall and the world will not end. We will have to figure out some new models for thinking about how we dispense news and discuss issues. Or, perhaps better still, might rethink what “news” and “media” is and means (psst… already happening).

I don’t want to join the holy war around paywalls, so I’m not trying to add to that debate directly – you should read Ingram and the others yourself.

What I do want to contribute is what I’m experiencing as a consumer. And what I can say is that I’ve found paywalls to be profoundly beneficial to me as an avid and significant news consumer, but in ways that I’m pretty sure the news industry is going to find disturbing and disappointing.

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, in Canada several newspapers have thrown up paywalls – including the Globe and Mail (the main national newspaper) as well as the main “traditional” newspaper in my market – the Vancouver Sun. Each offers something like 20 free articles a month – akin to what the New York Times does. I also assume (but confess I don’t actually know) that if you arrive at an article via facebook or twitter, it does not count towards that total.

Now, every morning when I visit the home page of the Globe and the Sun and I see an article that might be interesting, I hover my mouse over it and ask myself the same question I suspect tens of thousands of others ask in that moment: “Is reading this article worth burning one my of my 20 free articles this month?” (or, framed another way: “is this article, sponge worthy?”)

And you know what? About 90% of the time, more actually, the answer is no.

And you know what else?

I’m grateful that this is the choice I’m being forced to make.

The internet is filled with news and articles that are wonderfully distracting and that I should probably not spend time reading. It turns out that by “internet” I also mean “pieces of news and articles in the pages of the Globe and the Sun.

What pay walls are reminding me of is that time is my most valuable (or scarce) resource, not access to content. By putting a price on their content the Globe, the Sun and everyone else with a paywall is simultaneously helping me put a “value” on my time. And that is a real service.

Interestingly, it makes getting a subscription is even less interesting to me. A subscription is basically a license for the Globe or Sun to eat up an even bigger chunk my time (which is scarce) with content (which is not scarce), much of which I really don’t need. This is not to say that there is not good content in either newspaper. There is. Sometimes some VERY good content. But about 99% of their content is either not relevant (or basically a form of entertainment) or worse, a kind of unhelpful distraction – what Clay Johnson would call “junk information” in his book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (my review here). So why would I pay to get access behind a paywall when only 1% of the content is valuable to me and the other 99% is likely an unwanted time suck? Is the 1% worth it… so far… no. Indeed, if you are going to do paywalls, newspapers had better REALLY up their game.

And, well, if I just want to burn time and read fun things… well, the internet is the best thing in the world for that! There is almost unlimited quantities of high quality articles about things I don’t urgently need to know scattered all over it!

So I’m loving the paywall because it has made me more judicious about what I read. But that happens to mean less from these newspapers. In the end, if many people are like me (and, I’m a pretty avid news reader, so not really representational) I can’t see this boding well for the industry. Maybe some big papers, like the Guardian and the New York Times can survive on this model. I can’t see local newspapers, with their value chain and costs, surviving.

Indeed the other thing I’m paying for… the editorial piece, also becomes a starker choice to me. I may be an avid news reader, but the editor of these papers is not my editor – their audience is someone else (probably a boomer). Twitter continues to be my main news editor, particularly my “thought-leaders” list of people I respect (but don’t always agree with) give me a constant stream of interesting content.

I also want to make clear, I’m also not a “it must be free” kind of guy. I mean… I like free. But I don’t worship at its altar.

I pay for books all the time. I pay for my subscription to the Economist. There I feel about 60% of the content is really good. Of course – bigger caveat – I only get the digital edition, and I really care (e.g. pay a premium for) the fact that they read every edition to me. This means I can listen while exercising (running) or walking through airports. As a result the Economist doesn’t compete for my time in the same way the Globe or Sun is – but that is clever of them! They worked themselves into my less valuable “workout” and “commuting time”, not my more valuable “productivity” time. It means I also digest almost the entire thing every week.

So my sense is that pay walls can be a good thing for thoughtful users. I’m sure it will drive many to lower quality free content, but it others more judicious about how they spend their time. Frankly, not reading half the stuff I read and spending that time writing, reading something else, or taking care of my little guy, would probably be a big boost to both my productivity and quality of life.

But that doesn’t solve any problems for newspapers.

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Henry Brown

agree close to 100 percent…

In those rare cases where I wish to read an article behind the paywall have found that I can reset the counter with a few minutes of effort or in one case access the “article” through facebook.