Paywalls for Newspapers: It’s Complicated

Paywalls for news content will only increase. Some newspapers will go full-on paywall with very little free content, others will take a more measured approach. Our experience based on client interactions and research indicates that there is no one solution for all newspapers and in fact, will, and should, vary by market. Here’s some lessons learned and thoughts.
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Table Stakes News: For more global and major stories that come out of AP, CP, AFP etc., these are available across almost every single newspaper from more local to regional. They’re table stakes and readers can get them from a multitude of sites. They should never be behind a paywall.
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The Art of the Content: This is where the rubber hits the road. If you’re going to build a paywall, you want the content in there to be absolutely brilliant and invaluable. This is where you invest in journalism. Analysis, opinions, depth. It’s where you really apply data journalism the most. The Globe and Mail and the Washington Post do this brilliantly.
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How Many Free Articles?: Three? Four? More or less? The answer is, it depends. This is where newspapers need to really experiment. It will take some trial and error. Research by INMA and Nieman Labs among others, doesn’t show any particular guaranteed formula. It will depend on several factors; age and brand equity in your market, depth of content, publishing schedule and advertiser relationships as well as price. The key is to experiment.
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The Right Price: Done wrongly and too quickly, consumers may see this is a desperate attempt to extract more money when they don’t perceive value. You’ll again need to experiment and do some market research ahead of time. Make sure your market thinks there’s brand value. Develop different offerings that mix terms of subscriptions along with digital only and a mix of digital and print.
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Know Thine Market: Most newspapers understand their advertisers far better than their readers. They also know their market at a macro level, not so much the micro level and this is important. Reach out to your readers, we’ve found time and again that a newspapers market is more than willing to express an opinion of their paper.
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Paywalls Can Help With Fake News: to spread, fake news needs to be free and it needs to be fantastical and improbable. Fake news can’t survive behind a paywall and increasingly, though the evidence is anecdotal now, consumers are beginning to view free as suspect and paid as real.
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Paywalls need to be in the business model today, it’s hard tp avoid unless you have a model that is like The Guardian in the UK or La Presse in Montreal that looks for donations.
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The two most important considerations in deciding on a paywall is to really know your readers and the content they want and to be open to experimenting. If you get it right the first time, you’ve worked a miracle. Paywall strategies will vary by market.
What’s been your experience?

About the Author Giles W. Crouch

Giles Crouch is a design anthropologist and CDO/CIO. He spent over 20 years in globally-focussed marketing communications for technology products and services, but his roots are anthropology in a modern sense. He uniquely ties his deep knowledge of technology, marketing, design thinking and design anthropology as a polymath to help clients seeking digital advantage in today’s complex world. Giles has been regularly interviewed by international news media on topics such as social media, blockchain, artificial intelligence and it’s impacts on society. He is a passionate practitioner of design thinking and anthropology. Giles is prolific writer and public speaker, lecturer and keynote. He has also completed over 250 netnographic research projects since 2009. His secondary activity is as Group Publisher with Human Media Inc.

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