It’s not the pay, it’s the wall

When we talk about “charging for articles” we sometimes mix up the impact of charging itself and the impact of the steps taken to make sure people pay. I was guilty of this in my “charging for articles” post.

The problem with newspapers charging for their articles on the Web isn’t that there is anything wrong with publishers seeking to obtain revenue from their Web pages. Publishers can and will find ways to make money from the Web. They just won’t be the same as they were in print, and they probably won’t be as lucrative, because print was often a monopoly in a way that the Web will never be.

The problem is that the steps publishers take to maximize revenue end up minimizing the value and utility of their Web pages. Building a “pay wall” typically means that only a paying subscriber can access the page — that’s why it’s a wall. So others can’t link directly to it, and the article is unlikely to serve as the starting point for a wider conversation beyond the now-narrowed pool of subscribers.

In other words, when you put up a pay wall around a website you are asking people to pay more for access to material that you are simultaneously devaluing by cordoning it off from the rest of the Web. This makes no sense and is never going to work to support general-interest newsgathering (though it can be a perfectly good plan for specialty niches).

If your journalism is utterly unique you might be able to make a go of this approach, though even then I think it would be tough sledding and take a long time to become self-supporting. But 98 percent of the material newspapers are likely to start charging for can’t claim that kind of uniqueness. It’s wishful to think otherwise.

(I wrote more on this last month in The OPEC Plan For Newspapers.)