In a dying industry, the sensible thing to do is to maximize your revenues before you die. Paywalls might well make money for newspapers. But that doesn’t mean that newspapers aren’t dying. Quite the opposite.
—Felix Salmon, Reuters
That quote, which we first saw in this Mathew Ingram piece on paidContent, gave us new insight on why we dislike paywalls so much. Yes, the newspaper industry seems to be adopting them at a rapid pace, and yes, the paywalls at The New York Times and Financial Times are reportedly successful, but there’s something about putting the subscription genie back in the bottle that strikes us as a step backward.
Salmon puts his finger on one of the weaknesses of most current paywalls: They are defensive strategy. They’re designed to keep loyal readers on board, but they repel potential new readers.
Alan Mutter shares worrisome statistics: More than two-thirds of regular newspaper readers are over 45, their average age is 57 and the average age of the online newspaper audience grows one year older every year. This industry is still headed toward a cliff. Unless those demographics turn around, it’s only a matter of time before the audience dwindles to a size that is no longer economically sustainable.
What’s the answer? Unfortunately, no one has come up with one. In another piece this week, Ingram criticizes paywalls for being a no-growth strategy. His article is mostly a restatement of Mutter’s analysis, but the really interesting part is in the comments section that follows. Both critics and supporters of paywalls vigorously debate the alternatives, and both sides make good points. Done right, it seems that paywalls actually could attract new subscribers, but no publisher is reporting the kind of circulation gains that will be needed to replace this rapidly aging audience.
The time seems right for micro payments, but that idea has never gained any traction. Kachingle was one of the early players in newspaper micro payments, but it has now morphed its business model into a co-marketing app content somethingorother that we can’t figure out. People seem to be OK with using Google Checkout for 99-cent purchases, but not for five-cent purchases. We think there’s a psychological barrier to micro payments. Below 99 cents, people don’t want to be bothered to think about paying. In fact, charging a nickel to read a 5,000-word article seems a little absurd, as if the article has no value. At some point, micro payments work against you.
Reuters’ Salmon argues that paywalls as currently implemented are too inflexible. They impose a limited number of subscription options on visitors regardless of what the visitors want or how they behave. Paywalls should use a sliding scale that maps to the needs of the individual reader, he suggests. People with an intense interest in sports will pay more than those who care deeply about entertainment, so they should pay a different price. Few publishers understand their audiences in that kind of depth, though.
We did see one bit of encouraging news this week. The Newspaper Association of America reported that advertising revenues continued their seven-year-long string of declines, dropping 6% in 2012. However, overall revenues were down only 2%. The reason is that publishers are finally diversifying their revenue streams, and not just by charging readers:
These new revenue sources, which include such items as digital consulting for local business and e-commerce transactions, now account for close to one-in-ten dollars coming into newspaper media companies. They are significant enough in scale that NAA has begun to collect detailed data about these revenue categories and track their trajectory year-to-year for the first time.
Consulting? Affinity programs? Marketing Services? Where have we heard those ideas before?
- Newspaper revenue: good news, bad news
- Author-specific paywalls let publications cash in on journalists’ personal brands
- A Majority of the Biggest Newspapers in the Country Now Have Paywalls
- Paywalls rise
- Audit Notes: The paywall problem, Thatcherism, Googlebots