To charge or not to charge: The great paywall debate

3 Nov

In my response to Clay Shirky’s weblog I would first like to relay my understanding of paywalls.  A paywall is a system that was designed to prevent Internet users from accessing content online without having a paid subscription to view the webpage.  Some paywalls allow minimal access to online content without a subscription, and some allow only selective content to be viewed freely.  Even newspapers are now using paywalls on their websites to attempt to increase their revenue.

There are positives and negatives to implementing paywalls.  One positive is that if you charge people to see online content, it will essentially bring in more revenue.  Putting up paywalls better helps to organize and classify readers into types, which can attract more advertisers.  This is because paywalls help you see what type of people are most interested in the content.  Advertisers use that information to decide which site to advertise on based on their target audience.

Also, journalists need to make money.  Writing is their job.  Would you like it if you went to work every day and never got paid?  I don’t think so.  Few journalists expect to afford glamorous lives; however, they do expect to be able to afford food, clothing, and shelter.

Now let’s talk about some of the negatives.  The main argument with paywalls is that most people tend to view news as a public right and not a commodity.  People believe that they have the right to know what is happening in the world, and that knowing shouldn’t cost them.

Shirky wrote in his blog on Jan. 2, 2012 that 2012 could be the year when newspapers finally realize paywalls are a bad idea, and that news isn’t for sale to a consumer. He also said even you had a solid online following, there will never be enough page views to make a decent profit after putting up a paywall.   Shirky explained that in order to attain a substantial profit from a paywall, a large number of page views is necessary because paywalls decrease available audiences by considerable amounts.

Regardless of how long ago Shirky wrote the blog post,  paywalls have pretty much remained in the same state since his post was published.  News sites are still toying with paywalls and trying to implement them in different ways.  The point is that they are still around; however, their success is questionable.

Another problem with having to pay for content online is the visibility of the content on search engines such as Google.  On one hand, news outlets love the web traffic that Google’s search drives to their website.  On the other hand, they worry that Google is keeping people away by displaying different search results or showing too much of the content from the source website.  Google has responded to these criticisms:

“Today, more than 25,000 news organizations across the globe make their content available in Google News and other web search engines. They do so because they want their work to be found and read – Google delivers more than a billion consumer visits to newspaper web sites each month. These visits offer the publishers a business opportunity, the chance to hook a reader with compelling content, to make money with advertisements or to offer online subscriptions. If at any point a web publisher feels as though we’re not delivering value to them and wants us to stop indexing their content, they’re able to do so quickly and effectively.”

The main question posed is whether or not paywalls work, and if not, will they ever work?  According to Shirky, the answer is no.

I think that in order to get paywalls to work, or to at least get them to work better, news sites need to work on getting across the message to the public that news, credible news, is a service that should be paid for.  Keeping in mind that knowing what is going on in the world is in fact a right, charging for that information is also a right.

The Internet is constantly changing and online news sites are experimenting with these different types of pay walls in order to increase revenue.  Experimenting is fine, but for many news cites the paywall experiments can be pretty costly when they don’t work out.

Whether or not news should be free seems to be a debate that will never end.  In my opinion I do not think they should be free.  When you pay for a subscription to a news site, you are not just paying for the content.  You are also paying for the quality of the writing and the credibility of the source.

I don’t think it’s fair for journalists to get less money because the site that their work is being published on doesn’t charge its readers.  If news sites all adapted to paying for content I truly believe that in time more consumers would adapt to having to pay.


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