Thinking Through News Website Paywalls

Altru New York Times Typographic T-shirt
In the world of citizen journalists, the outstanding Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism of The New York Times (The Times) and its caliber of publications should put up a strong fight to keep their readers. The Harvard Business Review’s “The New York Times Paywall” case study examines the challenge this newspaper faces in generating consistent revenue in the digital age. The Times attempts to secure its readership by introducing a paywall, a system for restricting access to articles online in order to charge a subscription. With a diverse well-educated audience to reach, The Times has done well in designing a paywall that combines both a metered system with free access to a specific number of articles and a device specific offer. Without having a crystal ball it is hard to say whether this is the best digital strategy, but it is certainly better than the editors throwing their hands up in the air and providing free access to all of its articles.

Being accessible online through tablets and smartphones will be the key to reaching new, young audiences across the globe. Moving away from the old media model will make capturing these audiences possible. In developing its digital strategy going forward The Times should take inspiration from Content Marketing. The Times and other newspapers can develop and repurpose their own content in the digital space through videos, infographics, motion graphics, games and art. Readers are looking to be entertained while they are educated. Besides its popular crossword puzzles, it would be interesting if The Times introduced games that both improve brain performance and showed the mental benefits of reading The Times in a measurable way. In the section addressing “Digital Disruption” the HBR case study quotes Nicholas Carr, a technology writer: “The nature of a newspaper, both as a medium for information and as a business, changes when it loses its physical form and shifts to the Internet .  .  . When the newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart”. If the bundle falling apart is inevitable it is critical to find a way to ensure the sum of the newspaper’s digital parts equal more than the physical whole. Content innovation is the best way to make this happen. The unforgettable stories will still be part of the content, but it will be delivered in a format that is more attractive to today’s reader.

It was tough deciding whether paywalls are a good idea or not. I challenge online readers to think this one through and comment below.


  1. I agree with your content marketing point for sure but agree with Nicholas Carr if something will be lost if there is no physical newspaper anymore. I am also very curious as to see how it pans out because younger audiences are absolutely benefiting from free articles and access through mobile and tablets.

    1. Hi Elly, There is definitely a generational aspect that will unfold. Let's wait and see what happens. - Sharon

  2. The value of most mainstream publishing companies is rapidly diminishing, and the industry is flocking to paywall gimmicks in hopes of slowing the demise of core audience. It’s time the marketplace of readers decided IF and WHEN individual pieces of content should be monetized...but only after free and open access feeds viral interest and triggers a payment requirement.

    How does a story or video reach its potential "throw weight," or is talked about around the kitchen table or water cooler if parked behind a restrictive paywall? And keeping score of how many stories a consumer has read or viewed during a publisher-defined period of time is an instinctively negative experience for consumers - and technologically porous in practice. Just how many sites will a consumer subscribe to in order to read or view what they want to consume?

    The issues mainstream publishers face are debilitating and their way of doing business today, unsustainable:

    - aging printing presses and production equipment reaching the end of its useful life, with capital investment in new resources representing a negative ROI
    - employees cleverly but indefensibly disguised as independent contractors delivering products or producing content
    - an archaic belief that readers will continue to support a brand simply because of its one-time relevance and legacy
    - the stark realization that with each readership study commissioned, the demos relied on for their very existence are looking even less like the audience advertisers demand they reach

    With the proliferation of metered paywalls, the vast majority of media companies appear intent on writing another Darwinian chapter in their history by once again following the publishing big dogs over what could well be a fiscal cliff of their own making.

    It’s time for innovation that gives publishers the tool to create a new revenue stream for reinvestment in quality content based on monetizing individual pieces of content that are credible and virally-certified by the marketplace of readers as worth paying for, rather than replicating failed subscription models of the past.

    Steve Staloch
    President & CEO
    Tolltrigger, LLC


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