January 4, 2018 | by Christopher Hendrickson

Paywalls & Publishers Part 3: Paywall Models

The first post in this series investigated why and how paywalls were adopted by publishers. The second balanced the arguments for and against paywalls.

Now, in this post—the last in this series—we will explore the paywall options that are available for publishers, what those options look like, and how those paywalls perform for the publications that have implemented them.


The Categories of Paywalls—And How They Perform

Hard Paywalls

This is the most extreme type of paywall. With this model, content is only available to subscribers. This means that success here is typically reserved for giant publications that have the necessary brand identity, reputation, and intensely loyal audience.

Naturally, in excluding potential readers from accessing content, these publications can expect dramatic drops in traffic. The Times, for example, saw its traffic plummet after constructing its paywall. However, its reputation and loyal audience mean that it still operates a sustainable model that fuels its journalism.

But even The Times, which is famous for having one of the strictest online paywalls, experiments with its model and occasionally offers free content. For instance the publication, despite its Digital Director Alan Hunter saying that “we don’t use the F word here,” has conducted tests that offer a set number of stories in exchange for a reader registering.

These tests represent a more moderate paywall option: the metered paywall.


Metered or “Soft” Paywalls

This model is the most prevalent on the web. This system offers readers a set number of articles that they can read before having to pay a subscription fee to the publication. Some argue that this model, in offering readers a taste of content and access to key articles while helping publishers to drive subscriptions, strikes an important balance.

This model was pioneered by The New York Times in 2011, which granted readers 20 articles for free per month. As of December 2017, this has since been lowered to five articles. Kinsey Wilson, executive vice president for product and technology at The New York Times, explained the logic behind the model: “We’re a general interest publication,“ says Wilson. “We need to create a great experience for subscribers, but we want a great experience for people who are consuming it lightly, too.”

Select Condé Nast properties too, for example, have found success with this approach. The New Yorker now makes an estimated 55% of its revenue from its readers. In fact, Wired—also a Condé Nast property—is planning on implementing a metered paywall from January onwards.

Publishers that elect for this model are also finding that other platforms are beginning to offer support for them. Both the Facebook Instant Articles project and the AMP Project protect these publishers from offering too much content for free by offering metered paywalls within their platforms.

But some publications choose another route, which differentiates between levels of content: combination paywalls.


Combination Paywalls

This is a freemium model that differentiates between types of content. With this method, publishers are able to select which premium pieces are placed behind paywalls, while low-quality “fodder” content can be offered for free. This allows publishers to generate traffic and entice readers, while more premium content can be kept behind paywalls to inspire audiences to subscribe.

The Boston Globe has taken this model to the extreme, offering separate websites for these two audiences. As Martin Baron, the Editor of The Boston Globe explained, “some understand that journalism needs to be funded and paid for. Other people just won’t pay. We have a site for them.”

The combination paywall can, however, fall victim to the same vulnerabilities and weaknesses that other paywall options suffer. Using simple methods, readers can easily circumnavigate paywalls and find the content that they are looking for. Given that this is the case, it can make little sense for smaller publications to run the risk of frustrating their readers when their paywalls are ultimately fickle.

In his piece for Haitus.cc, Rob Howard explores this phenomenon as well as other reasons that paywalls might in fact not work. It is an interesting read when partnered with CJR’s study on leaky paywalls.

Of course, there is a final paywall option available to publishers.


No Paywall

Going without a paywall remains a viable option for publishers: leaps in programmatic advertising and server-to-server header bidding mean that publishers can maximize their revenue made from each visit to their website with the considered application of ad tech.

This model ensures that even the smallest publications have the opportunity to succeed and earn revenue from their work and content. In a landscape where in 2016 in the US just 16 percent of readers paid for digital news, competition for subscriptions is fierce. And the world’s leading publications know this: there are instances where publications with paywalls decide to lower them momentarily.

The New York TImes, for example, lowered its paywall as Hurricane Harvey came down on US shores earlier this year. When publications lower their paywalls in instances like this, it can reveal an interesting glimpse into how publications view their roles in society. Clifford Levy, Deputy Managing Editor at the NYT, explained that “we wanted to make sure our coverage of the hurricane was as widely read as possible.. We see this as part of our mission. We see this as a public service to provide this information to the world at times like this.”

Publications and their journalists thrive upon these connection with readers, and paywalls can seriously jeopardise this connection.

The Guardian has found an interesting and successful approach to the paywall conundrum. It famously keeps its high-quality content free for all, and has managed to secure 800,000 subscribers through the sheer quality of its content. This shows that for publishers without paywalls, quality and a dedicated audience can still pay the bills. The Drum has an excellent case study on how the Guardian found 800,000 paying readers.

As we discussed in the second piece in this series, the paywall question conjures up complex questions around media ethics and the right to access information, as well as placing a spotlight on the role and function of the press in society. Publications have to find a system that balances reader experiences and monetization.

We will keep you updated on the latest developments and news surrounding paywalls, so be sure to subscribe to updates from the Marfeel blog by using the form below.