Why has the media begun to despair about online paywalls? How anxious is the journalism industry about not knowing what people are going to pay for online?
Why has the media begun to despair about online paywalls? How anxious is the journalism industry about not knowing what people are going to pay for online? Why has Carphone Warehouse, and now Google, become so intensely defensive about their paywalls? Why is the publicity industry so keen to report and analyse the inside story behind newspapers’ paywalls? After all, paywalls aren’t being thrown up because journalists really can’t make any money online, not least because, in the UK, online advertising isn’t competitive with print advertising. Here’s what news organisations have been losing over the past decade or so:
Readers are saying what they won’t pay for online. The average Briton doesn’t know what they’re going to pay for online, and they don’t know what they’re not going to pay for online – whether it be for, say, live coverage of local football. They can’t expect the news websites that sell tickets to stage shows to stop charging. They can’t expect sports websites to stop charging.
Paywalls are being introduced not because journalists can’t make any money online, but because the advertising market has collapsed, and the industry fears that if you’re not in the news business, you won’t get any news. It’s true that the BBC could have made good money by charging for its online content – but its public-service remit means it runs ads alongside its online content. The Mail probably earns more from advertising alone than any newspaper today does, because the advertising that drives much of the advertising market has turned online. The great majority of people don’t read papers that have online paywalls; fewer people buy papers they read online.
Why the paywall paradox?
Online was supposed to be a perfect model for journalism, even though there was nothing perfect about it. People – especially young people – paid for subscription services and online magazines. People pay for music subscriptions, they pay for hairdressing subscription services. But online has proved to be something rather different, because the content that people are used to paying for – news – doesn’t sell.
Online pays for news because it’s where people do their leisure, not their work. Unlike print, it’s where people eat and sleep, where they watch programmes they watch in real time and read live reviews of a TV programme that they watched at home, where they go and take a bath together and read a book together and watch a film together in real time and do other things that they do together, which feel like work to me but are actually leisure activities.
And people pay for news online for other reasons. People can’t get news in print any more, they can’t get it on TV and there are no apps to watch things on. If you’re going to have to pay, why not pay for your news?