The WSJ Knows What’s Up

Information wants to be expensive. Newspapers are starting to require subscriptions in order to view online content. Many readers are outraged, and believe they should be able to get their news online for free. But it costs money to run a publication. So the ongoing debate continues: Should we have to pay for information?

The New York Times has created a pay wall, a website that restricts access to certain content only to paid subscribers. Soon, the non-subscribers will only be able to view 20 articles a month on the New York Times website. If you want more than that, you must pay.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, claims that this is, “an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform.”

There are pros to pay walls. Newspapers need money, and journalists need to get paid. And it is important to the industry to stay relevant to the social media world. But for many, the disadvantages highly outweigh the advantages.

The whole point in establishing pay walls is to raise revenue from the users, but it isn’t happening. NewsCorp’s Times of London set up a pay wall which resulted in a sharp drop in traffic. Clay Shirky believes that this is, “the end of the beginning,” and that The Times is becoming a Newsletter rather than a Newspaper. According to Shirky, before the pay wall, the two Times sites had six times more readers than there were in print sales. Now, the web audience is less than one-sixth of print sales. Furthermore, the paying web audience is less than 1/20 of print sales.
But are all pay walls deemed for failure, or have the ones in the past just been poorly constructed? One thing is for sure, the Times pay wall doesn’t seem to be any better-organized. According to Felix Salmon, of Reuters, New York Times staffers don’t even understand the pay wall, so how are the readers supposed to? Mike Masnick from TechDirt agrees, “Obviously, some people will pay. But it’s not going to be nearly enough to overcome the costs of this program and the likely massive cost in customer service to deal with putting forth the most confusing pay wall ever.”

So? Is that really it? Just create a user-friendly pay wall? No it’s probably not, because there’s one more thing that the public always wants: options.  The New York Times pay wall doesn’t offer any options. First of all, you cannot just pay for access to the site only, even the most basic package includes a NYT app. People don’t want to pay for things that they aren’t going to use. My grandfather reads the newspaper everyday, but he doesn’t have a smart phone, nor would he use the app even if he did, and he definitely doesn’t want to pay for it.

So in creating my pay wall, I would give my audience choices. First off, I would offer an array of different packages to suit each type of reader, including one with only website access (at the smallest price) for people like my Grandpa. I also don’t agree that if you pay five dollars extra you can get iPad service, but they take away your smart phone service. The more you pay, you should get services only added on, not taken off.

Secondly, I would not go with a rigid all-or-nothing pay wall. Allen Murray, executive editor of the Wall Street Journal Online, believes that pay walls can be successful, but you have to make some distinctions. The Journal’s pay wall model is a mixture of paid and free content. It allows free access to political, arts, and opinion coverage, as well as blogs and breaking news stories. The rest of the site requires a subscription.

I believe that this is a smart way to go about the pay wall situation. My pay wall would definitely reflect The Journal’s model. If you keep hard-news or breaking news stories from readers, they are just going to get it somewhere else. Furthermore, another publication is bound to report on it for free, giving them revenue that could have been yours. The same goes for the most popular content on your site, why would you hide the section that is giving you the most views? Also, like Murray, I would try to keep as much of the paid content as possible to niche writing. Like I said before, people will get their hard news stories somewhere else, but they would be willing to pay for a niche section because they are interested in it and they would read it frequently.

Information wants to be expensive. I believe that pay walls can be a positive thing, and in this day-in-age, nothing is free, so I don’t think they can be avoided. But I do believe that more work needs to be done in order to get public support, and I think the Wall Street Journal Online has got the right idea. My pay wall is based off theirs, and I think other publications should do the same. Maybe then, “we can continue to invest in the quality of journalism you all know and love,” just as Ochs Sulzberger Jr. intended.

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One Response to The WSJ Knows What’s Up

  1. Pingback: The WSJ Knows What’s Up | Topics in Journalism: Social Media

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