Elias: The Early Death Wish of Journalism

Paywalls on digital news sites threaten the accessibility of news.

by Chantal Elias | 4/2/19 2:05am

We all know the feeling — you’re scrolling through Facebook and you find that New York Times article you just have to read. Perhaps it’s about how unlovable Theresa May is, or breaking news that Donald Trump does have terrible cardiovascular health. You eagerly click on the article and BAM! You’ve been hit with the dreaded pop-up: “You have reached your limit of free articles.” Great. 

The concept of paywalls is not new — the Wall Street Journal has used one since 1997. But as of 2010, their use has greatly expanded throughout the industry. Faced with decreasing print and advertising revenues, publications such as the New York Times have rolled out restricted-access models. A 2016 survey conducted by the American Press Institute found that 77 of the 98 US newspapers with circulations over 50,000 make use of an online subscription model. The majority of these online news sites use the metered system, which allows readers a specified number of free articles before the paywall comes into effect. 

The gathering of information is not free, nor are many of the ways in which we consume it. People are generally willing to pay in order to remain informed, whether it is paying for the monthly cable bill to watch CNN or the yearly subscription to receive the New York Times. People’s willingness to pay for information, however, does not translate to the online medium. For many, the increased implementation of metered paywalls is an attack on the inclusivity and accessibility of internet information. Evidence collected by API suggests paywalls turn away potential readers. The 2016 study found that while 53 percent of Americans pay for news, only 26 percent of the American public will begin to pay for a source that they previously used for free. Such a conclusion is not surprising — online access packages are pricey, with a basic New York Times online subscription costing $104 per year.

As a journalist, I am of course an advocate for journalists receiving a proper return on their intellectual craftsmanship. I am, however, also a strong believer in the power of the news and in the necessity of information accessibility. The rise of paywalls has taken over the online news experience, and their increased presence restricts against accessible content. A recent study by the Journal of Marketing examines the reduction in news engagement with the rise of paywalls. In comparing the number of unique visitors before and after the New York Times instituted a paywall, the study found that the number of unique visitors decreased by 16.8 percent overall as a direct result of the required online subscription. This is to say that while loyal New York Times readers may pay for the gated content, the inclusion of paywalls is driving away the light readers. The “unique visitors” who might have stayed on the New York Times site if a cost was not involved are more than likely going to migrate to sites without paywalls. 

Not only are paywalls prohibitive, but they also may not be making as much money for a newspaper as one would think. The same Journal of Marketing study revealed that the New York Times paywall resulted in a significant reduction in engagement metrics, including visits, page views and duration per visitor. This translates into decreased advertising revenue. The API report similarly concluded that there is no convincing evidence that paywall revenue can make up for lost print readership and advertising revenues.

I care deeply about the survival and success of journalism, and that is why I worry that strict and expensive paywalls are a self-destructive tool for news outlets. As a compromise, I believe a more lenient paywall — a higher cap on free articles and a cheaper digital subscription — will be vital for the continued popularity of online news sites. Ultimately, news outlets must be cognizant of those who cannot afford expensive subscriptions, and they must consider the ramifications of those lost readers. News is an extremely powerful tool, and it must remain accessible to the general public.