Paywalls are scary! But aren't newspaper publishers supposed to be brave?

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on April 10, 2013

From The News Desk

Alan D. Mutter's "Reflections of a Newsosaur" blog is required reading for anyone interested in the changes happening to the news industry.

Which is not to say I always agree with him.

Today I don't agree with him.

Writing in Editor & Publisher about the growing number of newspapers erecting paywalls around their journalism, Mutter explains "Why paywalls are scary":

The reason to worry about paywalls is that they severely limit the prospects of developing a wider audience for newspapers at a time publishers need – more than ever – to attract readers among the digitally native generations that represent a growing proportion of the adult population.
Anyone who has spent even a fifth of a nanosecond around this issue will know what follows. Yes, paywalls have brought a bit of extra revenue to some newspapers, and a lot of extra revenue to a smaller number. But at what cost?
In a deftly crafted plan launched in the spring of 2012, the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier picked up nearly $167,612 in new revenues in nine months by putting a metered paywall on its website… page views were almost as high as they were when the website was free…. [b]ut here's the rub: Notwithstanding the elegant execution of the plan, the paper gained only 1,437 new digital-only customers… the modest take rate is worrisome, because it means that the Post and Courier, like most other papers, is not attracting nearly as many new digital readers as it needs to…
Mutter then goes on to explain the real problem. Digital readers (which is to say, younger readers) do not want to pay for content on the Web blah blah… but maybe they'll pay for mobile? Yes! That's it! Newspapers should invest their $167k in digital revenue on building mobile products. Because that's where the kids really are, and that's where they'll definitely pay.



Mutter is absolutely right to say that younger readers are on mobile, and it's not a terrible idea for newspaper companies to be throwing some money that way. But almost everything else in his argument speaks not to the challenges facing newspapers so much as to how much newspapers are fucking up their paywall strategy.

With all due respect to the P&C ("the South's oldest daily newspaper"), $167,000 in new revenues in nine months is fuck all. This is a daily newspaper with a daily circulation of 90,000. $18,500 a month is less than two thirds of NSFWCORP's new subscriber revenue in the past 30 days. (And we didn't have a 90,000-strong existing audience and aren't the South's Oldest Daily Anything.)

The paper also says with some pride that only five -- not 5 percent, just five people -- of their home delivery subscribers dropped the print product in favor of a digital only subscription. Note, they don't say only five dropped their subscription entirely, they say only five dropped print in favor of paying for digital.

Combine that with the P&C's comparatively pitiful digital revenues, and there are only two possible conclusions to draw: A) the P&C's digital edition is really awful (it isn't), or B) readers want to read P&C's digital edition but have absolutely no reason to pay to do so.

And there, once again, we find the truth: that metered paywalls are a really, really stupid strategy. This terror of losing eyeballs and ad revenue has caused publishers to set their paywall bar so low that there is basically zero reason to pay to subscribe to anything. The only people who do pay are those who have a reason to need access to absolutely everything the paper publishes which, in the case of the Post & Courier is 1,437 new people, or 167 a month. Not to keep rubbing it in, but NSFWCORP has had days where more than 167 people have subscribed. (Oh, and if you really want you mind blown: almost 70 percent of our new subscribers are choosing to receive both print and Web because, yunno, print is dead.)

To be clear: none of this means that NSFWCORP is better, or more popular, than the Charleston Post and Courier. All it means is that WE ACTUALLY ASK PEOPLE TO PAY FOR WHAT WE PUBLISH. And so they do.

Our paywall, as I've written before, is all encompassing. Non-subscribers, when they land on the front page, cannot read a single article. Not one. They can read, at most, a couple of paragraphs before they see a big red SUBSCRIBE button.

But that doesn't mean our content is invisible to non-subscribers. Quite the contrary: subscribers are able to unlock ten articles a month for sharing with friends, relatives, colleagues and even total strangers. One of the first people to share an unlock link was the front page editor of the Huffington Post who linked one of our pieces front and center on No visibility problems there. Similar situation last week when Harry "Mr. Burns" Shearer Retweeted a link to Mark Ames and Max Blumenthal's piece about the legacy of Andrew Breitbart.

We have a mobile version of the site, of course, and we're investing heavily in making it even better. But mobile is a platform, not a panacea. It won't save a business that's too scared to ask its readers to pay.

Because, yes, paywalls are scary. Strict paywalls even more so. But there are proven ways to have a strict paywall without being invisible, subscriber unlocks being just one of them.

And anyway, so what if paywalls are scary? Aren't journalists and newspaper publishers supposed to be brave? Otherwise why are they in this business at all?