The problem with paywalls

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The Chronicle Herald

Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Sr. asks rhetorically why we’re still debating the value of paying for good, quality journalism on the cusp of 2014?

Lashinsky says his personal journalism consumption is fairly old school. He gets three newspapers delivered to his doorstep and subscribes to numerous print magazines, noting that he pays for them. He also avidly uses their web, phone, and tablet versions, switching back and forth among media over the course of the day, depending on where he is and what he’s doing at the time.

That’s actually not unlike a profile of my media use, although on a somewhat more lavish scale. I subscribe to one daily newspaper delivered to my door, and several print magazines. I use the newspaper’s online edition on my iPad—and also its metered paywall Website—frequently; the magazines’ online versions much less. The reason I subscribe to these publications in their hard copy forms is that I still much prefer reading for pleasure off printed paper pages, and no matter how newspaper or magazine-like the iPad or Web app is designed to appear, a 10-inch or 13-inch elecronic display (let alone a 5-inch or 8-inch one) just doesn’t deliver the sort of tactile/sensory satisfaction that ink-on-paper does.

Also, ever try to balance and navigate a tablet on your lap with a bowl of soup in one hand and a spoon in the other? Not pretty. However, newspapers and magazines lend themselves to this sort of real-world multitasking.

I glumly acknowledge that the cost and logistics (not to mention the carbon footprint) of traditional print media destins them to increasingly become a (probably unaffordable unless you’re well-off) luxury due to diminished economies of scale, but I intend to enjoy them as long as I can.

Anyway, having made my living as a freelance writer and journalist for nearly 30 years now, I’m not out of sympathy with Lashinsky’s lament about hearing people of his generation and younger arguing that they don’t need to pay for journalism, “treating the paid model as somehow quaint,” and even chastising writers like him for posting articles on social-media sites that aren’t available for free. Or, I would add, people who gripe about advertisements appearing on free access sites. For example, check out this blog as a case in point. I write for both subscription/paywall and free access ad-supported Web publications, as well as several print publications, and in all cases, subscriprion fees and ads or a combination of the two indirectly pay for my writing services, so I’m not at all offended by advertising. It’s great to share for free, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Free content Internet and free or open source software are great too, but they’re unsustainable unless their creators’ efforts can be adequately monetized. As Lashinsky observes, there tends to be a sameness to what’s available for free, but a problem I perceive with the paywall model is that while most of us can afford to subscribe to a few favorite publications, we’ve gotten used to consuming Web content selectively and eclectically, and can’t afford to keep that up if the whole Web retreats behind paywalls. The most elegant solution so far has been metered sites that allow free access to, say, 10 articles per month, and although that’s not an entirely satisfactory fix, it’s better than seeing longstanding publications falling like dominos due to having their economic air supply cut off by consumer migration to the Internet.

Lashinsky cites several high-quality, potentially prize-winning works of investigative journalism in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Fortune, noting that it’s no coincidence they all appeared in publications that require readers to pay, since they cost serious money to produce and were built on the experience of professional journalists and the credibility of institutions that backed them, and you’re not likely to get that sort of quality information through social media or free-access, ad-free blogs, notwithstanding occasional excaptions.

The problem is whether generations of Internet users can be convinced to pay for content after years of being accustomed to free access. I would be interested in seeing actual before-and-after metrics on readership and profitability for publication sites that have implemented paywalls after having been freely accessible.

Whatever, there will continue to be plenty of free content on the Web. It may not be top tier journalism, but I’m given to wonder whether it won’t be enough to satisfy many users well enough to persuade them to stick with free, no hassle reading material online.

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