Are the days of free digital news content numbered? The Digital First Media CEO John Paton announced in November that all its Media News and Journal Register sites – more than 75 news outlets – would adopt pay walls. That means, according to Newsonomics contributor Ken Doctor, that readers’ access to 41% of US news dailies will be restricted.
Paton had been a stalwart champion of free access to digital news content, as were many Internet purists who recoiled at the New York Times’ 2010 introduction of a metered pay wall. However, with advertising revenue for the newspaper industry plummeting, many of these critics have had to modify their stance.
Still, Paton is not advocating the move as the best strategy for the future but rather as a temporary tactic to employ while the newspaper industry stumbles toward an all-digital future. The bottom line is that newspapers need to rely on their core readership rather than random clickers, mainly because advertising is more heavily targeting individual users of Google and Facebook rather than broad daily audiences.
Social media, however, is now one of the primary means by which people get their news. News readers tend to receive and discuss news articles in a social media context. Sending friends links to paid subscription news sites goes against a strong current. When Forbes contributor Adam Lashinsky linked to a subscription access only Forbes article on LinkedIn in October, he was heartily rebuked. Lashinsky said to the BBC: “As far as the readers of my post were concerned, I had committed the cardinal sin of social media, which was to link to an article for which they had to pay.”
Lashinsky defends his position, but the backlash he received was based on more than people wanting to get everything for free. Reliable, quality content is worth money, but we read and consume news nowadays within a vast stream of linked voices. Pay walls block that current, which is moving inevitably into the future. Newspapers may still be read privately and stockpiled in dusty attics, but clearly, clicking and sharing in the digital flow of news is the new paradigm. At best, damming up the current can only be a temporary fix.