The internet is both our greatest asset and looking to be our biggest downfall. The question of how to pay our bills is getting more and more pressing as the economy continues to keel over.
The problem, I’ve noticed, is we have two extremes – either no paywall at all or a nasty looking pop-up screen that begs for money. There needs to be a balance to this model, an optional version.
Think of your website, blog, newsreel, whatever as a store. Your viewers are customers lured in via content and are then pressured to buy something via flashy, annoying and tasteless ads, but they pay your “lease” if you will. The other option is a paywall that’s easy to get around and almost nobody but old folks pay for them. Neither model is winning – the ads don’t pay off and paywalls are ignored.
There are two types of paywalls – hard, where you can’t get access period and soft, where you lose access after a certain number of visits. There’s also a combination of the two, but most people just leave the site when they hit the paywall.
Now, if it comes down to it, I would personally pay for certain paywalls. Let’s say five bucks a month, but not more. If it was less or per year, great. I would use paywalls on vice.com, spin.com, NPR.org and even Wikipedia.org because I use these sites every day.
I would not pay for paywalls on Newyorktimes.com, rollingstone.com or azcentral.com because I do not use these sites everyday. I use them once a week or less. I’m not going to pay for what I’m not using and when a paywall appears, as they inevitably do, then I will find ways around it or find the article not worth my time.
But here’s the thing: if you are like rollingstone.com and you block your readers with a paywall, you’re losing a customer. You’re also encouraging them NOT to read your publication at all. This is counter-intuitive and no one wins. At least, if they opt out, they’ll at least be viewing your ads, pop-ups and other stuff.
It’s estimated you’ll lose 90% of your online audience with a “hard” paywall. Soft paywalls don’t work either. If you’ve spent hours viewing a site, you’re not gonna suddenly pony up to view more — you’ll find a way around it or go back to work or whatever. The combination model creates a rift in your “good” content behind the wall and whatever crap you throw to your interns that’s “free.” Even the New York Times soft paywall model completely sucks and the profit they saw from it in 2011 seems to be a fluke.
Most of all, paywalls fly in the face of true, patriotic journalism. As political and media theorist Robert A Hackett pointed out, “the commercial press of the 1800s, the modern world’s first mass medium, was born with a profound democratic promise: to present information without fear or favour, to make it accessible to everyone, and to foster public rationality based on equal access to relevant facts.”
So give your readers the option to access that freedom. Give them an optional paywall.
Optional paywalls would work like this: When you enter a website, you are told to log-in or sign up for the paywall which is approx. $4.99 x month. But there would be a third option, where you can close the paywall and read the site, the ENTIRE site, anyway. Maybe your paywall pop-up would periodically return or maybe it wouldn’t.
So how would your site earn money? Simple. Payers don’t see ads, they get their own accounts with which to comment with (enough of this posting thru Facebook stuff) and their comments would automatically rise above non-payers. It now becomes more of an open dialogue between the publication and the more active readers.
Some magazines like Spin and XLR8R have free downloads and contests. Only those that pay would have access. It makes sense to reward people that are loyal, not just everyone. After all, before the internet existed, contests and exclusive content weren’t available unless you purchased the magazine for approx. $4.99 a month.
If you purchase a subscription to a physical magazine, you would obviously get free access to the site, preferably with free downloadable content (read: PDFs, podcasts, etc.) for things like iPad, your phone, etc.
Give your paywalls different tiers: at the very least, basic, intermediate and subscription. Maybe even adopt a Radiohead-like pay-what-you-want platform. Encourage people to subscribe to your site gently, persuading them with some of that good guy Kickstarter energy. Make them feel like they’re doing a good deed.
But if they want in for free, shrug it off. It’s not greedy to be asked to be paid for your work, but if you’re a true journalist, you aren’t doing this for the money anyway. You’re writing, blogging and photographing because you’re passionate about the world you’re in and you want to share it. Your input is valuable and deserves to be seen at any cost, even free.
This optional paywall idea isn’t meant to be an “end all, be all” solution – after all, it’s just an idea. It isn’t really about money so much as it is about continuing to provide quality reporting. I think it’s obvious we can’t do that when rent is overdue and we’re living off ramen.
If you have something to add that would benefit this model, please share it in the comments. If you find flaws in this suggestion, point it out in. If you disagree, tell me why and explain how you would get journalists paid, because what’s available now certainly isn’t working in the long term.