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Trying A Non-Paywall

“If you use it, if you like it, then why not pay for it?”

The question – followed by a polite “It’s only fair” – currently appears at the bottom of most online articles published by The Guardian on the U.S. edition of its website. The banner offers a link at which a reader moved by the appeal can make a contribution to support one of the U.K.’s major news outlets.

The approach of asking, rather than demanding, financial support from readers is not entirely without precedent. Call it the public broadcasting model of journalism. In the world of internet news, where users have the option to read all sorts of stories (of varying quality) for free, many organizations have struggled to find models that will sustain high-quality journalism while not alienating potential readers.

Some outlets, like The Wall Street Journal, put most or all of their content behind a paywall. (The newspaper’s 2012 article “Paywalls Giving Newspapers Chance at a Comeback” is, itself, behind a paywall.) Some, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, allow readers to access a certain number of free articles each month before the wall goes up. Many of those walls are pretty porous, though. You can access a lot of content through Google searches or by going into anonymous mode on your browser to thwart the paywalls’ cookie-based tracking system. Some sites, including the Journal, have also recently made changes to allow more readers to access the full text of articles shared through social media, in the hope that this will entice new subscribers.

Other outlets, like Gannett-owned newspapers, often ask you to complete a survey before reading their material. The survey information helps them better target advertising to pay for the product. Still others, like Bloomberg, make much of their content freely available but note that it first appears in premium pay-only sites, notably the very expensive Bloomberg professional terminal.

The Guardian, in contrast, deliberately adopted its “no paywall” approach in response to the one implemented by its British competitor The Times in 2010. And, at least so far, the Guardian has stuck to the decision. The paper’s columnist John Crace explained the rationale this way: “Call it a belief in an open internet or care in the community if you like, but here at the Guardian we can offer everything you ever wanted from the Times – and more – for nothing.”

I like the Guardian’s approach. That doesn’t mean I think it will work, but it is worth a shot.

Much like the public broadcasting model, The Guardian allows supporters to make a one-time contribution, as well as the option to become a monthly or annual supporter. Unlike subscribers to The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, the Guardian’s supporters don’t get access to previously walled-off journalism. Instead, they can expect at most a “welcome pack” and access to the premium tier of the Guardian app. That is more or less all; unlike not-for-profit news organizations, the Guardian can’t even offer supporters a tax write-off, as the paper explicitly notes on its donation page. For either one-time contributors or ongoing supporters, the main incentive is supporting the Guardian’s journalism for its own sake.

When I am driving through a strange town in the evening and want to listen to “All Things Considered,” I don’t make a practice of pledging to the local public radio station if it happens to be having a fund drive that day. I’m freeloading, but only to a minor degree – after all, I usually do not make up part of that station’s audience. I might be willing to pay four bits or a buck for a night’s access if I had to, but it is not worth everyone’s time to make or handle such a small pledge.

Yet I often subscribe to my hometown public broadcasters, especially if I have been making significant use of their service. (It varies.) I also try to contribute to services like Wikipedia, which I use often. I realize only a small percentage of readers, listeners or viewers are going to ante up, and of course so do those who run such user-supported outlets. But if enough people are willing to pay the freight, everyone benefits. Most publicly supported outlets maintain lean staffs and tight budgets to make it work.

That is why I have my doubts about the Guardian's approach. A traditional newsroom has too many cost centers and, these days, not enough audience to attract advertisers that enjoy a multiplicity of options. They have to shrink. I am not accusing the Guardian of having an overly bloated staff, at least by traditional journalism standards, but I doubt voluntary payments will be enough to counter the industrywide falloff in advertising. It’s worth a try, however.

In the end, I suspect the most sustainable model of journalism – like those of most businesses – will turn out to be the ones where the ultimate consumer pays for what she or he takes, and the business then does its best to respond to the wants and needs of those customers. In a way, this dynamic may be playing out already in outlets like The New York Times, whose liberal bias seems (to me at least) increasingly evident, but which surely reflects the viewpoint of the great majority of its readers. The paper’s coverage no longer reflects the priorities of long-departed advertisers like department stores and supermarkets, who wanted to reach the broadest possible audience while offending as few members of it as possible. It was inevitable that established news outlets would have to change their revenue model to survive. We are now beginning to get a sense of what that evolution will likely entail.

The Times of London tries to enforce reader payment with its paywall. The Guardian is taking a softer approach. Time will tell which one works better.

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