I believe in newspapers, and depend on them to get news. I’m from a generation that had only newspapers – and pre-cable TV news – for daily information, and I still think they are important. I read a lot of news on the web, on many different sites, but I still depend mostly on newspaper websites to know what’s happening. (And I buy a “newspaper,” the print kind, every Sunday.)
Many newspapers have introduced paywalls, or paid access. The New York Times was the first major paper to do this, but their misguided pricing strategy (different prices depending on whether you want to read the paper on the web and a smartphone, or web and tablet) and high prices ($15 to $35 every four weeks) make it very expensive. The Washington Post is smarter; they offer the same price ($15 per four weeks) regardless of which device you want to use. Other papers have other byzantine approaches, instead of a simple one-time annual fee. The Wall Street Journal actually did this, in the early days of their paywall: they charged $50 a year for full access.
Paywalls for newspapers are inevitable, but they need to be implemented differently. Recently, I wanted to read a couple of articles on different newspaper sites. One was on the Wall Street Journal’s web site. This is a paper that I don’t read often, but I came across an article about William Faulkner’s literary estate that interested me. The Wall Street Journal has some good non-business coverage, but there’s no way that I’ll ever subscribe to it, as I’m not interested in 99% of what they publish.
The second article I wanted to read was about Shakespeare, and was on the Le Monde website. I was able to read a few paragraphs of the article, but would have needed to pay €2 to read the entire thing; in other words, more than the cost of a daily paper. (Le Monde charges €15 a month for digital access.)
The problem in both of these cases is that I’ll never become a regular reader of either of these papers. I used to live in France, but I don’t any more, and French news, which interests me, is not worth that much. And, as I said above, I don’t care enough about business news to pay for the Wall Street Journal.
So how can I read articles I want to see? Many people have discussed the idea of micro-payments, and the news industry is certainly one sector that needs them. I’d pay a nickel (or 5p) to read an article; considering the cost of a newspaper, that seems fair, especially since I’d still be seeing ads, and the newspaper would get revenue from that as well. But I wouldn’t buy, say, a credit for a paper like the Wall Street Journal, because I wouldn’t expect to use it often enough.
What we need is a broader micro-payment system for newspapers, and other print publications (I’d pay, say, a quarter, or 25p, to read a magazine article from the New Yorker). The ideal system would work with as many publications as possible, where you’d buy a credit, and be able to apply that credit to any participating publication. The idea isn’t new; it’s been floated by Walter Isaacson, The Wall Street Journal, and Google has set up such a system using Google Wallet, but I’ve never come across it in vivo.
For now, newspapers are shutting out readers, and losing money, by only offering expensive digital subscriptions, or by linking digital subscriptions to print subscriptions. It’s time for newspapers to realize that not everyone is wedded to their content, and that most people won’t pay for a specific paper, but want to read news from multiple sources. Micro-payments could change the way we consume news, and it could help keep newspapers afloat.