Hard paywalls are, in the majority of cases, not an effective or sustainable method of paying for newsbrands online (whatever Rupert Murdoch or Sir Martin Sorrell might think). Which is why, having gained popularity in the mid 2000’s, most of them have been quietly replaced.


People never had a problem paying for print newspapers, but we clearly have a problem paying for their online counterparts. For good reason: the digital world is a completely different environment. Paywalls ask consumers to cough up for content, but a hard paywall fails to recognise that this content is (often) available elsewhere for free. The internet has flattened the playing field and hugely increased the competition, and unless you offer genuinely unique, usually specialised, content (financial content à la The FT and The WSJ for example), you are, frankly, trying to get the consumer to pay for something without much value.


The key to it all surely lies in that word; value.


Before the world went online (if you can remember that far back), newspapers provided a huge amount of value. Community and general news were their stock-in-trade and nothing else was able to provide it. Now we get our fix of both from a huge variety of digital places, with no real need to rely on a single source and no reason to pay for it either.


In fact, using a hard paywall to help pay for content is, in the majority of cases, counter-productive – because it actually prevents newsbrands from building any sense of community. It puts a barrier between the content and the casual reader that will have a deleterious effect on growth and long term readership. This is the reason why a title like The Guardian argues it needs to remain free – but this is also the reason that The Guardian is having so much trouble paying for itself at the moment. Digital advertising doesn’t cover the cost of all those journalists and foreign bureaux, and as (understandably) proud as they are of their huge, international online readership gains, there will come a point when they run out of cliff.


Think of The Sun, one of the most read print titles in the UK. They erected a hard paywall online, only to discover that since the general news and gossip was provided elsewhere that readership (and influence) declined. They dismantled the paywall, but now find themselves a long way behind competitor, Mailonline – which, huge readership notwithstanding, hasn’t yet figured out how to make money.


Incidentally, the problem is bigger for older titles with a print history. Newer online publications (Slate, Buzzfeed, Vox etcetc) can grow organically with their ad-revenue. Older titles needed to hit the ground running to be able to pay for their huge (sometimes bloated) newsrooms.


The answer, or at least, partial acknowledgement, is that it is very necessary for online publications to try to get money from readers, but that a hard paywall isn’t a good way to do it. It lacks the nuance needed to both encourage casual readers to dip their toes and then go on to pay for the content they see as being worth paying for.


So far, the alternatives seem to be some form of either the carrot or the stick.


The carrot (rewarding readers). Membership; join and unlock content (like long-form journalism), be the first to read high-value content, get invited to physical events, get free gifts…


The stick (penalising frequent readers). Metered (or ‘soft’) Paywall; often along lines of ‘first ten articles a month free’.


The carrot seems to give a higher value to the loyalty of the casual and paying readers, and appears to make it easier to move from being one to the other. Which sounds good but there is no evidence that it works, at least not enough to cover the loss of print ad and subscription revenue.


The actual answer? There is no answer, just a work in progress. Although these experiments (or more likely, a collection of them) may one day work, we go, in the words of Michael Wolff “in some ever-increasing existential darkness, back to the drawing board in search of one.”


So, no answer yet, but there remains a huge desire to find one. From publishers, from owners (who still like the influence), from readers who enjoy qualitative journalism and writing and not least from us; the ad agencies who continue to enjoy using the newsbrands to reach consumers.


By Oliver Brown