I was hell bent on writing a negative review of the Times new pay wall. I was wrong.
As it turns out, the pay wall could be the key for some papers’ survival, in BOTH print and online media. Now pay walls have been tried by over and over, and usually, well, unsuccessfully. But wanna know who has the largest overall paid circulation in the United States? The wall street journal. 10th? Dallas Morning News—and both have online Pay walls (NYT is third—but the pay wall went up after the rankings).
But how can a news source with a highly restrictive, all or nothing pay wall occupy the top spot? The key is specialized content and The WSJ has content that you just can’t find anywhere else, and I don’t mean financial news. The Journal has exclusive content, opeds, features, etc.. that many readers (2.1 million to be exact) have placed a premium on. That information can’t be found anywhere else, even finding reprinted WSJ article on google is difficult.
But its not just nationally known, high end financial news that can benefit from an online pay wall. Yep, tiny, little known papers liken the Concord Monitor from New England, a small newspaper that writes about local issues have also done extremely well, with visitor counts rising after their paywall went up in May. What’s the link between the two? Specialized content! Just like value is placed on editorials and opinions produced by the WSJ staff, customers (one can assume in Concord) want local news and information—and since no else is producing it, they can clearly identify a value proposition which they will purchase. In the end, customers will pay for content that they want, just as long as it’s not available anywhere else. USA today for instance would not be able to wall of their content, since all they produce is generalized content that isn’t’ exactly premium, and more importantly you can find it anywhere else with a simple Google search. Though, fine, we do like those graphs a bunch (don’t tell anyone). Actually, has anyone ever seen the USA today outside of mid-level hotel chains and airports?
So what about the newest, and most high profile media pay wall? While the times certainly has a lot of exclusive content, it also reaps the majority of their traffic and circulation from general news. Additionally they also tried and failed to institute a pay wall in the past with Times select. I think a few factors are at play here that make it possible for their new approach to work. For one Consumers are much more likely to pay for online content now, then they were even a few years ago (a bit more on this later), and the Times adopted a metered pay wall that embraces the casual user while converting their heavy users into paid customers. But there’s something else at play here—the metered approach, protects not only their online content, but their offline content as well.
Yes yes, the internet killed the print newspaper—but it was the fact that the same print content could be found online for free, that reloaded the gun and pointed it at its own foot (would love to have this analogy back). Instead of opening up two paid delivery channels for their customers, newspapers asked them to pay for an outdated version of the content they could access more easily online. Many people who prefer the actual paper (which I will NEVER understand) could no longer justify spending hundreds of dollars on something they could access for free at their computers, or their phones, etc.. anytime they so desired. As a content delivery system online was superior, and the superior version was free! As a result, print subscribers canceled their home delivery in droves in order to save money, even those who preferred print..and research backs this up:
A USC-Annenberg study this spring (the Annual Internet Survey by the Center for the Digital Future) reported 22 percent of survey respondents said they stopped their subscription to a printed newspaper or magazine because they could access the same content while online.
And it goes even further. Forget about revenue just from subscriptions, Print subscribers are still very valuable from an advertising revenue standpoint. So install a pay wall, and slow the death of your print, while monetizing online visitors. And ever since the NYT installed their pay wall? Yes, traffic is down but circulation revenues are up. The clearly found a way to activate their loyal customers, and make money off them like a good business should.
When you step back and think about the overall concept of an online pay wall, the concept becomes almost insultingly basic marketing, or even just business principle. Business creates products which customer’s value and purchase. Fair enough, but for years this wasn’t followed in the online media world. And it makes sense why this has been such a difficult proposition for media companies to perfect, and it comes down to consumer behavior. We expect (or have expected) the internet to give us what we want immediately and for free—-and the concept of paying for anything was almost insulting. Unlike offline, where consumer behavior is conditioned to purchasing content. But because the internet has been our source of free stuff for many years, only now are we starting to see a significant shift in our attitude towards purchasing content online.
And with that shift in consumer behavior, publishers are becoming savvier and beginning to not only understand the value of their content, but also how to profit from it.
—By Ben Malki