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What Goes Behind The Newspaper Paywall?


I have received excellent challenges to my views about the online newspaper paywall. The concerns and questions are summarized as follows:

"The web is helping us move towards transparency. Shouldn't newspapers move towards offering their content for free online?"

"What about people who can't afford the monthly subscription? All should have the right to be informed, no matter their financial status."

The focus seems to be on whether the content is free or not. We need to shift the focus to what is actually being paid for. It's not the content that's being paid for, it is the service of gathering and compiling the content (journalism) that is being paid for.

You can read my thoughts about the paywall and its value in "Newspapers Battle Between Paywall and Advertising". Here are some suggestions for those publishers who are wondering where to draw the line with the paywall.

I suggest that most content (if not all) go behind the paywall; However, if you were to identify content as free versus paid here are some basic rules to follow.

Recommended Paid Content

Artistic journalism is always worth keeping behind the paywall. A rags-to-riches feature story of a local business is an enjoyable work of art that adds value to the reading community. This information is not critical for public awareness, but is nice to know. Journalism that enriches is worth paying for and should be distinguished from news that facilitates public awareness. 

Obituaries are one of the most popular categories of information on a newspaper website. People who are in the need-to-know category should, in most cases, learn about a death outside of a newspaper reporting it. For most people, perusing the obits is more of a curiosity than a need-to-know. The newspaper reporting this information is providing a value-added service.

Local sports is not need-to-know and takes reporters a lot of time to get the story and pictures. This news should stay behind the paywall. This category alone may be a reason a citizen will subscribe to your service.

Recommended Free Content

The following content categories rank high on the list for need-to-know content and could be made publicly free. A nice side-effect may be more traffic and an opportunity to interest visitors in joining the community with a paid subscription.

Weather-related news can be considered valuable public (free or non-paid) notice.

Community announcements could be public. News that the city is shutting down XYZ street for road repairs or that the city will be conducting a test of its emergency response system are things that the general populous should know. If the newspaper is the primary source of information, providing this information offers value back to the community while also attracting potential subscribers to gain access to the rest of what the paper provides. 

Event calendar and community announcements is often a good category to leave open.

Local politics would be important for an informed public. There are sub-categories in this type of news that would be okay behind the paywall, depending on the community.

On the Fence

The following news types have good arguments on both paid and non-paid sides of the fence.

For many, local sports is up in the air about being paid or free. I worked with a newspaper that made a point of reporting on local sports that received very little media coverage. This could be seen as a public service to the community. On the other hand, is local sports news really a need-to-know? While on the fence for many, and while there are ideas yet to be heard, I continue to recommend that this type of news stay behind the paywall.

The entertainment category could contain important arts and culture events or announcements. This is a category that you might want to default behind the paywall, but pick and choose exception articles to be made public.

The Balanced Approach

A balanced approach to following these rules sends a win-win message that says to the people in your community:

  1. We want to inform our community through free reporting services.
  2. We want to enhance our community through value-added journalism that is worth paying for.

How can anyone argue with that? Watch your online subscriptions rise.