I enjoyed today’s visit from Meredith Kahn and learning more about the future of publishing and copyright. The publishing industry has probably been more disrupted than any other by the advent of the Internet and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.
One of the subjects we discussed today was the paywall, a topic on which there seems to be a lot of disagreement on the Web. Currently, websites use all different sorts of approaches to guarding their content, all the way from basically no restrictions (The Economist) to a nominal but easily-circumvented paywall with metered access (The New York Times) to a more robust paywall with a handful of free articles available (The Wall Street Journal) to Fort Knox-like, take-no-prisoners security (The Financial Times – God help you if you don’t have a subscription, because you’ll never be able to read one of their articles). That’s quite an assortment of approaches for a bunch of publications that, in print, offer similar products and have, generally speaking, similar audiences (well-educated, high-income Americans and English-speaking Europeans). I would venture to guess that in the future, we’ll see some sort of consolidation in approaches to paywalls. But what will the industry gravitate towards?
As much as it might be friendly to the general reader, I don’t think that the willy-nilly, you-can-read-all-our-stuff-for-free approach taken by The Economist and The New York Times has much chance of success in the long term. Sure, no restrictions means more visitors and increased advertising revenue, but is that enough to offset the loss of paid subscribers? I doubt it. The New York Times’ journalism is as excellent as ever nowadays, but the business side of the company is struggling. I think they’ll have to change their approach to online access and make it more restrictive if they want to exist and thrive in the future.
That said, I don’t think that The Financial Times’ approach is necessarily appropriate either. By literally offering no articles available free to the unpaid general readership (although they’ll generously let you read a handful free each month if you register with them and sign in), The Financial Times has much less of a presence on the Web than its competitors.
I think that The Wall Street Journal has just about the right approach. Although their website as a whole is a little clunky and slow, they do offer about 25% of their articles free every day, without the need for registration. If you want to read the rest, you have to subscribe. As such, the WSJ does a better job of hooking readers, then getting them to pay up if they want to read more.
Ultimately, as a consumer of news, I’d love if all these publications just took the same approach as The Economist and made their wares available and free for all. It would certainly save me a lot of money every year. But I recognize that they are producing something of value, and they deserve to be compensated for it. To give their content away basically for free (aside from a few ads), as The Economist and the NYT do, just isn’t going to cut it.