Paywalls: The path towards sustainability?

A paywall refers to when online content is restricted via a paid subscription. Most college students are familiar with this concept when they search for academic journal articles or scholarly papers for research purposes and find that they can only access an abstract or brief description of the material. Utilizing their school’s academic libraries, students are able to gain access to the restricted content because the college or university pays a subscription. However, paywalls are also a strategy used with online news outlets to obtain both revenue and increased readership.

“Hard” paywalls refer to minimal access or completely no access to content without a subscription. “Soft” paywalls refer to a more flexible approach which allows for selective free content or a limited number of articles, after which access is restricted until a subscription is paid. The latter is commonly referred to as a metered paywall and allows access to any content as long as the limit has not been exceeded. Selective free content is available outside of the paywall, while typically more premium content is reserved behind the paywall.

In 2010, newspapers began using paywalls on their websites as a strategy to increase revenue in response to the steady decline in subscribers for their traditional printed publication. For some newspapers, the strategy is two-fold. By including an online subscription with a print subscription at a discounted bundle price, newspapers have been able to sustain their traditional readership while increasing online readership.

Although some major publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, have maintained a “hard” paywall strategy, others, such as The Guardian, continue to make available all their content for free. Many have utilized “soft” paywalls in their strategy for generating revenue while others, such as the Toronto Star, have implemented paywalls unsuccessfully and later removed them. Overall, onine news outlets are still experimenting with different strategies and approaches, each one of them trying to determine what best meets their financial needs as well as the needs of their readers.

Since news reporting is still a business, generating revenue is a necessary endeavor. Without the funds to produce and distribute the news, there will be no news to report. The medium’s traditional business model for printed publication has taken an extreme cut in revenue since the widespread availability of online access to news. Newspaper outlets have endured major cutbacks not only financially, but in staffing as well. Paywalls are now affecting how journalism is practiced and is impacting both the business model of newspapers as well as the concept of the internet’s free information superhighway.

An article by Editor & Publisher dated January 2016 discusses the current success of paywalls for certain newspapers and asserts that paywalls are gaining positive momentum for the publishing industry. In the article, Ken Doctor, a media analyst for Newsonomics, is optimistic about the future of newspapers in the digital age.

“We don’t have a sustainable online business model for newspapers yet, but paywalls are starting to bring that goal of sustainability into focus,” said Doctor.

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