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Newspapers Battle Between Paywall and Advertising

More and more I read announcements of newspapers adding some sort of paid model for their online content, the dreaded paywall.

I am writing from a unique position to the newspaper industry. I don't have years of printing ink pouring from my veins. However, over the past year and a half I have been feeling the pain felt by publishers as the news consumption format is changing.

Why? I am a business owner and lead programmer for a web-based CMS (content management system) and accounting system tailored for newspapers. We call it Newsroom. In order to provide the best product and service I have immersed myself in the newspaper industry.

By no means do I have the holy grail, but I think I can provide some fresh "outsider" perspective. Newspapers need to be willing to step outside the box if they want to survive in an online world.

Journalism Paywall In All Cases!

If the newspaper is paying journalists, then a paywall of some form should be a part of their business model. Make it easy for paid print subscribers to get online access. Some will complain, but people who care about their community will pay for good local content. A paid model will add a sense of value to the service too.

Most newspapers already have an online presence. If your newspaper is one of the hold-outs, then start off right with content available only to paying subscribers. For papers giving their journalism away for free online, there needs to be some creativity to change course. Ease the subscriber base into a paid model.

An approach for easing your site visitors into a paid model

Focus on adding something new rather than take away. Define what content is uniquely yours, then roll some or all of the content in with a new service as a premium product. Be candid with your readers. Quality journalism is worth paying for. They will be resistant, but eventually they will come around.

Another option is to simply announce that you are switching to a paid model. Adding something new, though, softens the blow and at that same time increases the perceived value your website offers. The service could be an expert column, video, audio, or photo blog. You know what you can do. Expand your territory.

Protect the print product.

Don't charge less for online-only subscriptions than your print subscription until your market is ready. People will quickly drop their print subscriptions in order to pay less for the online version. But if they aren't happy with the online version it will be easy to drop the subscription entirely. Then you have lost them. When the online version is stable, then you can re-visit charging less for the online subscription. Make sure your online content is a sustainable format first.

Recently I ran into a news editor who gets most of their content from off-site journalists and citizen blogs. They broadcast their paper delivery for free. They get most, if not all, of their income from advertising. I would even challenge this business model to implement a paid content model.

"But, advertising will drop if we charge for content!"

This is the primary concern publishers have with the infamous paywall. Think outside the box. Face the fact that giving away good journalism was a bad model in the first place. Advertising doesn't have to be behind a paywall. The paywall could actually enhance your advertising efforts.

For free-content news websites, I suggest easing into paid content. That way certain areas will still get the casual peruser traffic the site is accustomed to. Be transparent with your readers about the value of journalism.

Let's look at the "effective frequency" perspective of the paid content model. Paid readers will be more loyal than those who are casual perusers. Successful advertising conversion is about a relationship. The more times the same person sees an ad, the greater the chance they will act upon it. Paid site users will return more often giving your advertisers a greater opportunity at establishing a relationships that lead to actions.

Thomas Smith, a successful London businessman, wrote a guide called Successful Advertising in 1885. I suggest that his thought process works better with loyal paying subscribers versus occasional non-paying readers. From his guide:

  1. The first time people look at any given ad, they don't even see it.
  2. The second time, they don't notice it.
  3. The third time, they are aware that it is there.
  4. The fourth time, they have a fleeting sense that they've seen it somewhere before.
  5. The fifth time, they actually read the ad.
  6. The sixth time they thumb their nose at it.
  7. The seventh time, they start to get a little irritated with it.
  8. The eighth time, they start to think, "Here's that confounded ad again."
  9. The ninth time, they start to wonder if they're missing out on something.
  10. The tenth time, they ask their friends and neighbors if they've tried it.
  11. The eleventh time, they wonder how the company is paying for all these ads.
  12. The twelfth time, they start to think that it must be a good product.
  13. The thirteenth time, they start to feel the product has value.
  14. The fourteenth time, they start to remember wanting a product exactly like this for a long time.
  15. The fifteenth time, they start to yearn for it because they can't afford to buy it.
  16. The sixteenth time, they accept the fact that they will buy it sometime in the future.
  17. The seventeenth time, they make a note to buy the product.
  18. The eighteenth time, they curse their poverty for not allowing them to buy this terrific product.
  19. The nineteenth time, they count their money very carefully.
  20. The twentieth time prospects see the ad, they buy what is offering.

Online Advertising Dos and Don'ts

Advertising is a conflict I have felt from almost every publisher and newspaper owner I have talked with. They want to put more focus on journalism, but they make so much money in advertising.

We recently worked with a newspaper that had a 40/60 ad/content model. The paper had a quality that stood out. It was refreshing.

Advertising is important to community commerce, but in most cases it is badly implemented and over done. This diminishes the journalism value to the reader. How do you feel when you read a website article that mazes through so many blaring ads that you lose your place? Yeah, not cool!

Print to Online

The paywall plunge will be different for each newspaper. There are a number of creative paid model ideas that have yet to be explored. Quality journalism, in whatever form, should have a direct monetization model, not solely paid for by indirect advertising.

Don't make your readers claw at the wall to climb over it, give them a ladder. They still have to climb, but it will be much easier. Whatever model you choose, make sure it is simple. I have seen some confusing models coming out. The last thing you want for your readers is for them to become confused about how to pay for your valuable content.


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Nick Johnson, CEO & Founder of Sabramedia, has more than twelve years in the web development and software business, and has spent the last few years talking with newspaper and digital media professionals around the world. Nick provides a knowledgeable perspective on web related topics for the newspaper and media industry. Sabramedia makes the Pigeon Paywall and Subscription Managment plugin and the Newsroom CMS

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