Deciding whether or not to implement a paywall is a huge decision for a publication: if publishers make the wrong choice they can risk losing readers, reducing the circulation of their content, serving fewer ads, and lowering revenues.
Essentially, constructing a paywall could mean a publisher deals irreparable damage to their publication. Because the stakes are so high, it is essential that publishers properly balance the positives and negatives of the paywall question before taking a decision.
In the first post in this series, we explored why the first paywalls were created. Now, to help publishers to balance their responses to the paywall question, we will explore the arguments both for and against paywalls.
High-quality journalism is essential to the functioning of a healthy society. It ensures that readers can be informed, educated, and entertained on the subjects and topics that affect and interest them. The transition from print to digital, though, has affected the revenue streams of newspapers and magazines alike, and the industry is now exploring new business models in an attempt to survive in the digital age and continue to serve readers.
Some in the industry are of the opinion that as profits tumble, publications should be at liberty to choose the business model that best sustains them. And there are instances of paywalls bringing success to some publications with a powerful brand identity: The New York Times has perhaps the most prominent example of a successful paywall, hitting the 1 million subscriber mark back in 2015. In fact, this December, it made the first change to its model since 2012 by scaling back the number of free articles that users can access.
This success has emboldened other publishers to follow suit over the years. Large publications such as The Times and The Washington Post have also constructed paywalls, and the future-focused Wired magazine announced recently that it will implement a paywall from January onwards.
But in constructing paywalls, could these publications run the risk of unfairly isolating readers who are unable to afford the fees? Some with a stake in publishing, such as Buzzfeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti, argue that “paywalls are bad for democracy”. As the business model of news evolves, Peretti and other exponents of this perspective worry that we run the risk of wandering into a future where access to quality news is exclusive, available only to those with the means to pay for it. This type of exclusivity would have clear negative consequences in the future.
And while paywalls may make sense for larger publications that possess the required brand presence, reputation, and audience, the situation is more complex for smaller publications. Those publishers need to build a following and strong brand presence, which demands that new readers can access their content. Starting from zero with a paywall is not a viable possibility, meaning that new and discerning voices could be stifled as they fall beneath that shadows of paywalls around them.
Some argue that paywalls have also played a part in emboldening our confirmation bias. Without a variety of sources of information and news, online readers slip into the comfort of echo chambers. In fact, early web pioneers warned of “cyberbalkanism” back in 1996, arguing that the web had the potential to divide rather than bring people together. Those authors warned that “the loss of shared experiences and values may be harmful to the structure of democratic societies as well as decentralized organizations”.
It is clear that while paywalls can be a matter of quantifiable fact and may work for some publications (we will explore the way that paywalls perform in the next post in this series – stay tuned), their impacts are far-reaching and difficult to predict. As 2018 progresses, we will see how the paywall story evolves and keep you informed.
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