Taking Stock of What We’ve Learned About Paywalls
Yes, they've saved some great publications. But there are issues.
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The decision by its new owners at WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station, to take down the digital paywall at the Chicago Sun-Times seems like a good moment to take stock of what I think we’ve come to know about paywalls generally.
First, there’s the narrow case of Chicago. I don’t think this decision should in any way have been considered a surprise. It had been hinted at, and was in some sense inevitable, not only in Chicago, but in any future combinations of established public radio outlets and legacy newspapers—of which there will likely be more (beyond the one in Texas announced late last month).
Those newspaper paywalls will fall because when, as in Chicago, you increasingly cross-post news to both sites, you can’t realistically expect to have one site be paid and the other free. And public media, the greatest business asset of which remains its significant membership base, seems long ago to have made a commitment to providing its content free to listeners and viewers. Moreover, it’s important to remember that these deals do not, any rhetoric to the contrary aside, represent a merger of equals. The last owner of the for-profit Sun-Times, for instance, did not just decide to give it away to the nonprofit WBEZ, he added many millions in cash to get the deal done.
Beyond public media acquisitions, a number of issues with paywalls seem to me to be coming into focus.
Where paywalls work: Broadly speaking, I think we now know that paywalls work only when a publication is producing high quality content in high quantity. This is the through-line from the Wall Street Journal (the earliest major adopter) to the Financial Times (where the idea of the meter was developed) to the later-adopting but now very successful New York Times and Washington Post among newspapers and Atlantic and New Yorker among magazines.
Relatedly, the problem for the vast majority of metropolitan newspapers is that while many continue to produce high quality content on occasion (their best stories are in many cases their best ever), they do not now do so in sufficient quantity to attract a large enough group of paying digital subscribers. (The average Gannett or Lee chain paper, for instance, has about 6000 paying digital subscribers. That’s not enough to make this economic model work in the long term.)
There are big equity issues here: Paywalls are ultimately for richer people. Journalists may be willing to pay for a passel of digital subscriptions, but most civilians don’t feel like they have the money to do that, even if they have the time. To put some numbers on this, fewer than one out of five Americans pays for online news, and the median number of subscriptions among that group is two.
When you target high income and wealth in this country, unfortunately you end up with an audience that is disproportionately white, while Black and Latino people are underrepresented. That is especially problematic in our cities, where paywalls therefore have the effect of furthering the historical pattern of underserving these communities, even when they represent a majority of residents.
This issue is hiding in plain sight, and gets discussed too little in my view. Publications with paywalls are delighted to boast to advertisers about many characteristics of their subscribers—mostly with respect to consumption and influence—but I know of none that publicly disclose their racial breakdown. If they don’t know, it’s only because they don’t want to ask.
Another, admittedly much less significant, equity issue around paywalls surrounds the use of meters of limited free views, which were the breakthrough innovation in helping paywalls take off. Setting the meter at an economically optimal level is relatively easy for larger organizations, with big audiences and sophisticated analytic capabilities. But it’s much harder for smaller organizations, especially community papers that have neither.
Bigger subscriber revenues have costs as well as benefits: Paywalls have been great for the businesses of the news organizations that have the largest number of paid online subscribers, especially as print advertising has continued its secular decline and the platforms have monopolized digital advertising. But the growing economic dependence of these publications on their readers is having increasingly troublesome editorial consequences.
This dependence, I think, is the principal source of the rising tide of consumerist features and the increasing celebration of luxury items and trends. Even worse, at least in my view, is what I am starting to see as a reluctance to challenge readers’ preconceptions, even when those may not be deeply rooted in fact. What is sometimes denigrated as “political correctness” is often, I fear, actually a reluctance to discomfit paying subscribers.
I am certainly not philosophically opposed to paywalls; I was an early and consistent defender of the one at the Journal in the Nineties. I celebrate what seems to be the likely salvation of some of our best news organizations, even if hundreds of others are being left behind. I do think, however, that we need to see the picture here in the whole, where solutions lie and where they don’t, the problems being solved, but also those being created. Such a perspective can help us chart the work ahead.
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