News­pa­pers re­think pay­walls as dig­i­tal ef­forts sput­ter

The Myanmar Times - - International Business -

PAY­WALLS were sup­posed to help res­cue news­pa­pers from the cri­sis of sink­ing print cir­cu­la­tion as read­ers shifted to get­ting their news on­line.

But with a few ex­cep­tions, they have failed to de­liver much re­lief, prompt­ing some news or­gan­i­sa­tions to re­think their dig­i­tal strate­gies.

News­pa­pers in the English-speak­ing world ended pay­walls some 69 times through May 2015, in­clud­ing 41 tem­po­rary and 28 per­ma­nent drops, ac­cord­ing to a study by Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia re­searchers.

Pay­walls “gen­er­ate only a small frac­tion of in­dus­try rev­enue”, with es­ti­mates rang­ing from 1 per­cent in the United States to 10pc in­ter­na­tion­ally, the study in July’s In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion said.

“Peo­ple are far less will­ing to pay for on­line news than for print,” said USC jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Mike Ananny, an author of the study.

News­pa­pers are in a dif­fi­cult spot, he added, be­cause on­line ad­ver­tis­ing gen­er­ates a frac­tion of print’s rev­enue, and news or­gan­i­sa­tions are al­ready pres­sured by fall­ing print cir­cu­la­tion.

Alan Mut­ter, a for­mer Chicago and San Fran­cisco news­pa­per edi­tor who now con­sults for me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, said the re­search con­firms that pay­walls have value in rel­a­tively rare cir­cum­stances.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal and Fi­nan­cial Times have been suc­cess­ful with pay­walls be­cause of their unique con­tent, he said.

“It’s hard for a gen­eral-in­ter­est web­site to charge for news that you can get for free with a few clicks.

“Pay­walls can back­fire be­cause they put a bar­rier be­tween the news­pa­per and the ca­sual reader,” he said.

“They are trun­cat­ing the size of the dig­i­tal mar­ket, when the most im­por­tant fac­tor for dig­i­tal is scale.”

A sur­vey this year by the Amer­i­can Press In­sti­tute showed 77 of the 98 US news­pa­pers with cir­cu­la­tions above 50,000 used some type of on­line sub­scrip­tion, which could be a “hard” pay­wall that fences off all con­tent or al­lows some free.

But a num­ber of English-lan­guage news or­gan­i­sa­tions have dropped their pay­walls in re­cent months, in­clud­ing the Toronto Star and Bri­tish dailies The In­de­pen­dent and The Sun.

A study by Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Reuters In­sti­tute for the Study of Jour­nal­ism found only 10pc of read­ers in English-speak­ing coun­tries were will­ing to pay for dig­i­tal news.

“English-lan­guage pub­lish­ers face a more dif­fi­cult task in try­ing to build a large pay­wall busi­ness be­cause there is so much free English con­tent,” Mr Mut­ter said.

Mr Mut­ter ar­gued that pay­walls ran counter to the goal of boost­ing read­er­ship, and that news or­gan­i­sa­tions need to think dif­fer­ently.

“Print is fail­ing and dig­i­tal is hard,” he said.

Although news­pa­pers are los­ing on­line ad rev­enues to on­line plat­forms, they have the ad­van­tage of know­ing their lo­cal mar­kets and busi­nesses.

“They have to work hard at be­ing lo­cal mar­ket­ing part­ners in the mar­kets they serve,” Mr Mut­ter said.

USC’s Mr Ananny said news or­gan­i­sa­tions need to find cre­ative ways to de­velop pay models that don’t put read­ers off.

He also ex­pressed con­cern that ex­pand­ing pay­walls may lead to a new “dig­i­tal di­vide” where in­for­ma­tion is avail­able only to those who can af­ford to pay.

The re­search sug­gests that “news or­gan­i­sa­tions serve them­selves and read­ers best when pay­walls are fluid”, he said.

Many pa­pers open up free con­tent dur­ing ma­jor news events or emer­gen­cies, ful­fill­ing a civic role, he noted. Oth­ers charge read­ers for ac­cess to spe­cial fea­tures or con­tent.

“News or­gan­i­sa­tions had bet­ter un­der­stand why they are drop­ping or rais­ing pay­walls,” he said. –

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