During a lecture held a few days ago, Alan Rusbridger outlined GNM’s reluctance to embrace a paywall structure, stating that the returns it would provide would not be worth the cost of stifling online growth. The basis of his argument, which underpins the paywall debate, is whether the fees accrued from a paywall structure would make up for the loss of online readers. Rusbridger contends, using examples from those who have embraced paywall structures, that the returns would not be sufficient, while News International are all but ready to embrace the system in the near future.
But the question this raises is how can there be such a division of opinion between two companies who should know better than most the direction online journalism is likely to take?
It seems that one of the reasons the debate remains unclear is because it is one rooted, not only in the present of online journalism, but also in its future. Currently free content is not translating into profit in the way newspaper organisations would like it to, but equally, where paywalls have been used, the results have often been disappointing. For proponents of the paywall, however, the key to its success lies in introducing it in the right way.
Those championing paid-for content believe online readerships represent an untapped revenue resource, but acknowledge that most readers are unlikely to make the leap to fee-payers without being given something in return. So in order to assist that leap, proponents of the paywall envisage ways in which they can improve the online content they currently offer, provide a distinguishing service that differs from their competitors, and ultimately change the way their website is used. But the problem is how do you offer a genuinely improved service without adding significant cost to production?
In contrast, those who believe online content should remain free feel the focus should foremost be about increasing, not just the number of readers, but the number of loyal readers who will return to the website consistently. But, assuming numbers can be increased, then what? As papers know all too well, large numbers of online readers don’t convert as easily into money as it seems they ought to. At the very least though, more numbers equals more money through advertising.
It’s easy to see how the debate is, whilst hugely important, still in its theoretical stages. With an unsatisfactory status quo and an unproven alternative, inertia is the obvious choice.