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The paywall dilemma

Published: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Bit DepthXX

Two weeks ago, the Trinidad Express enforced a paywall on its website, restricting access to all but a few lines at the start of each current story to paid subscribers. It wasn’t the first time that such restrictions had been placed on readers. The T&T Guardian added its own partial paywall to its website a couple of years ago, blocking access to Business Guardian stories, columnists, letters and editorials.

The Express move came shortly after the OCM group announced a drop in profits of 14 per cent and along with the paywall came a rise in price of the print edition by $1. The double whammy came in the heat of an election season, at exactly the time when getting information about T&T would be at its peak for the diaspora audience that is the cornerstone and ground floor of local online news consumption.

Within a few days, the Express had loosened those restrictions and roughly 40 per cent of each day’s paper remains behind the paywall, blocked stories helpfully designated with an asterix in the headline. This isn’t unusual in the world. Paywalls have been instituted by some newspapers for more than a decade now with spotty results. 

Rather than discuss what’s happening with one newspaper locally, it might be more useful to examine what a paywall is intended to do, particularly in the rapidly changing environment of the local market for news consumption. The paywall system is an effort by print publications to meet the costs of publication in an online environment in which advertising returns are painfully slim.

Newspapers or magazines with robust online circulations can command rates for advertisements that can benefit a publication’s bottom line, but the jump from hundreds of dollars per square inch to cents per view been a shock to publishers. The problem with paywalls, as with most things that exist in the world of atoms, is that when they are translated into bits, the same rules not only don’t apply; they often prove nonexistent.

The usual argument in favour of paywalls is that people pay for a publication in print, so they should pay for it online. This presupposes two things. One, that most people actually pay for a publication in print, which flies in the face of the “pass-along” factor, which has long held a place in calculating real world circulation.

The other is the perception of value. In the world of newspapers that I grew up participating in, it wasn’t true unless you read it in print. There remains some stickiness to that perspective, but serious digital natives set greater stock in gathering multiple viewpoints for their news from trusted sources, rather like reporters do, correlating facts about anything they are interested in with what an observer or source can confirm.

When the El Pecos explosion happened in Maraval, the facts were available within minutes of the incident, with supporting photographs. News outlets offered context and details that weren’t available to casual observers. It is the depth and richness of story enrichment that will prove to be the deciding factor for any publication that hopes to survive behind a paywall.

So a publication can’t just set up a paywall for its existing content, it must demonstrate a willingness to earn that money through the provision of information and perspectives that aren’t available from its competition, which today, is everybody. I know nothing about the deliberations that drove the paywall lockdowns at this newspaper or at the Express. What I know is what everyone can see for themselves. 

All three local dailies offer shovelware online, moving print content into digital containers that often aren’t the best possible fit. All three dailies offer an app for viewing a PDF of the print edition and post at least half of their paper online on a website. Seen from the perspective of a prospective reader, it’s a minimal effort to reproduce the traditional product in digital format, but increasingly, that isn’t what online readers want.

The traditional role of a news media has been to act as an intermediary for readers with limited time, filtering news content according to relevance and importance, combining that with a view of the world that aligns with its potential readership while packaging that collection on deadline for easy consumption. 

It’s hard to see how a paywall helps with the translation of any of that into a world of free flowing bits. The slow tolling deathknell for the traditional print and broadcast media approach began with the introduction of 4G mobile connectivity in this country in 2012 (http://ow.ly/RcOV3).

Intuitively, we know that paywalls don’t work, the exceptions proving the rule. But media houses have to find a way to bridge the gap between back then and an inexorable future, a way to burn the boats and build a new colony while maintaining contact with the mainstream of advertising income.

Competitors aren’t hamstrung by legacy expenses. There are no newsprint, ink, press maintenance or broadcast tower costs. Staff don’t have to huddle in nicely appointed cubicles and often don’t even use company issued gear. Media houses playing in bitspace have to become entrepreneurial in very different ways than they have grown used to over the past five decades, managing disruptions from without while creating controlled disruptions from within.

To be successful, they will have to create content that’s appropriate to the medium it’s channelled into, recruit the next generation of editorial teams and bless, or at least meaningfully support, the efforts of such young turks in destroying the status quo in the traditional workplace in their search for success online.

The alternative, for the traditional media house, is that someone else will eventually arrive to do it to you.

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