Knight Center
Knight Center


Experimenting key to making newspaper paywalls work

Just days after The New York Times paywall went live, media executives gathered at the 12th International Symposium on Online Journalism to discuss the merits and challenges of charging for newspaper content in an environment where readers are used to accessing online news for free.

The panel, “Paywalls: Charging for News Content. Does it Work?,” opened ISOJ with presentations from Jim Gerber, director of content partnerships for Google; Mark Medici, director of audience development for the Dallas Morning News; Jorge Meléndez, new media director for Grupo Reforma in Mexico; and Eivind Thomsen of the Schibsted Media Group in Norway.

The main question on newspaper executives’ minds is what kind of pay model to implement, Gerber said. And the answer? “It depends,” he said. Newspapers must take into account the content being provided (i.e. niche), the reach (i.e. is it national, international, hyperlocal), and the goals (i.e. additional revenue stream or a defense mechanism for print).

Sometimes paywalls work, and sometimes they don’t, Gerber said. “As much as we want to say to say there’s one silver bullet, there isn’t,” he said. “…So what can you do? We need to be in a constant state of relentless experimentation.”

Thomsen said experimentation is crucial. The future, he said, will not be based on just one revenue stream, but rather several that will allow for the production of quality journalism.

“We have to learn one thing,” he said. “After hundreds of years of history, we are having far too much baggage, so we need to get rid of a lot of this, but also repackage what we’ve been good at into the different forms of vehicles that will bring this to different segments of the audience.”

Finding a sustainable model will require trial and error, Medici said.

“We let the free online access to our content go on way too long,” he said. “So I’m excited that we're trying this, and maybe it will really change the way we produce content.”

Medici highlighted the new paywall the Dallas Morning News recently implemented.

“People have always paid for content, they just pay for it in pulp,” he said. “Now, we at the Dallas Morning News like to refer to pulp as just another platform.”

While many question why readers would pay for something they can get for free, Medici send that, in the end, he’s excited about the Dallas Morning News paywall.

“In the first week we sold 2,200 new Sunday subscriptions,” he said. “We haven’t sold 2,200 over a two month period of time, so I think people locally get it.”

While the Dallas Morning News is just now switching to a paywall, the Reforma newspaper group in Mexico has been charging for content since 2002, Meléndez said.

Initially traffic dropped 35%, but Reforma since has recovered it, and ad revenue still was up 10%, he said. The paywall also stopped minor declines in print circulation, and increased online subscriptions.

Readers pay, Meléndez suggested, because the newspapers offer unique local content, and content, he said, is the key to a successful paywall. “You have to understand what your users value,” he said.


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