A new perspective on the paywall argument to stop and make you think

Another week, another opinion piece about paywalls. This time from Peter Preston in the Observer, and published on the Guardian website.

Yet it’s not the article which stopped and made me think – it was one of the comments from a reader underneath.

Preston’s column is a summary of the different paywall thinking going on, and the fact that there are various shades of paywalls knocking around the industry at the moment.

He drew no conclusions, but did manage to prompt perhaps one of the most thought-provoking comments on the issue I’ve seen for a good while:



WalterBMorgan, whoever he or she is, disproves a mantra which has been rattling around the regional press for the last 12 months or so that ‘the reader must pay.’

To me, that mantra ignores a basic principle of customer service – and journalism, in many ways, is a customer service industry – and that’s making sure you always listen to the customer.

It’s not so much a case that the reader must pay, so much as the fact that the reader is indeed paying to read our content online, it’s just that we don’t see any of that money, because we no longer provide the delivery and distribution methods. Someone else does that now, and they get the money for doing so – money which also covers access to buying the groceries, catching up with friends and watching telly on the go, too.

How much readers have ever really paid for our content, and how much of content has been paid for through advertising which sits alongside it, will vary from newspaper to newspaper. For some newspapers, the cover price covers pretty much all costs associated with the newspaper, for others, it perhaps only covers a bit more than the cost of printing and delivering, the rest coming from advertising to ensure a profit is delivered.

In that sense, the digital challenge is exactly the same as the print one: Finding a way to ensure that we cover the costs of delivering content people want to consume – and it’s much easier online to ensure we’re providing the content people want, or trying to find a way to engage people in the issues we believe matter to our brands – and deliver a profit for the companies which own those brands.

No matter how much the paywall debate becomes confused with arguments about proving the worth of content, or that if something has a value it must be paid for, it’s essential the industry doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the reader/user/customer will ultimately decide the price they’re prepared to pay for it.

There’s precious little evidence to suggest they’ll pay more than the cost of their broadband or 3G connections. To me, the customer has decided what they’re prepared to pay for, and it’s something which gives them access to more news sources than we’d have thought imaginable 20 years ago. And that’s why I think the ‘audience must pay’ argument is not only dangerous, but bordering on the arrogant. Some will argue you should give it a try and see what happens.  I’d argue plenty already have – and none liked the results.

A better question, and starting point, is ‘What might the audience pay for?’ and then listen for the answers.

As with so many things online, for the news industry, it should be all about listening. 





3 thoughts on “A new perspective on the paywall argument to stop and make you think

    1. Hi, I think there’s some truth in that – but at the same time, what would have happened if newspapers had insisted on a paywall from the off? I imagine a couple of years of success may have followed, but when blogging, forums, hyperlocal sites, new-style news sites etc emerged, the Press would have been into fighting a battle against decline online, rather than being a loud, powerful voice online.

  1. I’ve heard this point made before, although never so succinctly as the “It’s who gets the money that has changed” line.

    I’ve been expecting for some time that platform publishers like Virgin, Facebook etc would start to move into content (vertical integration). And of course some already have (MSN, Yahoo).

    That’s why the “Giving it away for free” line betrays a certain ignorance of business realities – had news orgs not, then web startups would have dominated the space much earlier. It was a defensive strategy to prevent competitors encroaching on their territory.

    But I haven’t seen much of an aggressive strategy alongside that, which is why web startups are starting to dominate now. Buzzfeed et al are doing exactly what tabloids/Northcliffe/etc did to print publishing previously. Who’s been aggressive online? The Daily Mail, with enormous success. The Guardian before that (comparatively), likewise.

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