OK, I’m getting sick and tired of these paywalls


Of course, of course, of course newspapers should have charged for their content online, starting in the 1990s when the Web was a novelty everybody was playing around with.

But nobody did, so nobody thought we could.

The fact that we didn’t was sort of a boon to journalists, while a looming nightmare to the business side: We could all access each other’s copy for free in real time — no more need to convince my publisher every year to let me keep that budget line for Lexis-Nexis. (That one stuck in his craw, every time. I think on some level he thought I was using the newspaper’s money to buy myself a luxury car.)

And we all got used to that, as did readers. Which made it all that much harder to get away with putting up a pay wall. People had come to expect free news as their right.

But finally, much too late, pretty much everyone has realized they need to charge for news that it costs them dearly to produce. (Reporters don’t get paid much, but they’re not free. Editors even less so.)

And between that and the pop-up ads that repeatedly jump up between you and what you’re trying to read (yet another scrappy effort to regain fiscal viability), reading newspaper content online has increasingly become less of a pleasure, and more of a chore.

Yesterday and today, I was trying to read the Post and Courier‘s story on Alan Wilson and the Quinns, and not succeeding. I’d call up the story, it would appear tantalizingly, for a couple of seconds, and then disappear behind a dialogue box urging me to subscribe. When I declined, the screen immediately reverted to the home page, where I could only see the headline. (Eventually, a link Doug shared with me worked, and I was able to read the story.)

While I was in the midst of that, someone shared with me a link to this story in The Wall Street Journal about effective passwords. Since my subscription expired months ago, my initial effort to read it failed. Then, I went to the old workaround that hasn’t been working for me lately (Google the precise headline of the story, and call it up directly from the search page) and this time it worked! But that might be related to the fact that this was the daily A-hed story. (That’s that one fun, featury read that the Journal puts on the front page every day.) And if I remember correctly, the A-hed has been free to read for years — which is smart, because it gives prospective subscribers the impression that the Journal is a fun paper to read.

And as you all know, The State has been more and more insistent that you pay to play. In fact, a couple of months back I thought they were getting sort of obsessive about it. Three days in a row, I was forced to log in yet again in order to read the paper on my iPad app. I found this sufficiently irritating that I complained about it on Twitter — and it hasn’t happened since. I don’t think there was a cause-and-effect relationship there, but I found the result satisfying nevertheless. Almost like I still had some pull…

Of course, an awful lot of content out there remains free, to an extent. If not for that, we’d see Twitter grind to a halt — or at least, the kinds of Tweets that I value, the ones that provide links to content. And if you’re a light user, you may never, for instance, exceed The New York Times‘ allotment of 10 free stories a month. But if you’re a heavy user like me, you end up having to knuckle under and subscribe. And for how much longer, I wonder, will they allow those 10 freebies, month after month?

But it’s getting to be more work, and/or more expensive, to keep up with the news on the Web. I wish I thought that was going to save newspapers — or better yet, return the to their glory days. If I did, I’d find these barriers less irritating…

WSJ paywall

21 thoughts on “OK, I’m getting sick and tired of these paywalls

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking of giving it away, yesterday I had a bit of a Eureka moment. Before giving platelets, I was filling out the usual questionnaire that I’ve done hundreds of times, but this time the import of this question finally hit me:

    “35. Have you EVER… received money, drugs, or other payment for sex?’

    WHAT! You mean I could have been charging all that time? And here I was doing lame stuff like trying to sell ads on my blog..

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve always thought that was a kind of weird question because it’s like they’re saying it’s the money that’s the health hazard, rather than the sex with multiple, random partners. Like if the prostitute would only GIVE it away, there’d be no danger.

      I mean, I’ve heard of filthy lucre, but I didn’t know you could get the pox from it…

  2. Lynn Teague

    Direct links from Twitter sometimes work too. I subscribe to the digital State, Post & Courier, NY Times and WaPo, so I feel like I’m doing my part for journalistic support. Now and then it is nice to read something in the Wall St. Journal for free.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah. Except they don’t let you. Which on one level seems foolish — it seems much smarter to do what the NYT does: give people a chance to sample your content, to entice them to subscribe.

      But the WSJ is a special case — the usual rules don’t apply. I’ve always sensed that they see themselves as having something of a captive audience — people who think they HAVE to subscribe for their business, and who don’t mind the high rates because they expense it, or are simply able to afford it.

      Of course, that would tend to make one lazy about quality — and the quality has remained high, IMO…

      1. Lynn Teague

        Some Twitter links do manage to access the WSJ for free. I don’t know that all do, but I follow them on Twitter and on occasion get through that way. Good thing, too, since I definitely am not associated with a business that considers the WSJ required reading.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, I think they do still allow access to SOME of their content, although not nearly as much as they did a few years ago. I think nonsubscribers can read the cover story in the weekly Review section. And they may still allow access to the “A-hed,” that daily fun, featury story on the front page…

  3. Dave Crockett

    Well, I suppose if EVERYONE tried my experiment, paywalls might subside.

    I’m using the Brave web browser from http://brave.com (available as a free download for both Mac, PC and some flavors of Linux). It permits but does not require participation in its Brave Payments program. From their website:

    “Once a user enables Brave Payments, the Brave browser automatically and anonymously keeps track of the publisher sites each user visits. The more times that a user visits a site, the larger the proportion of the user’s monthly contribution is “ear-marked” for that publisher. These funds grow as new micropayments are added. When contributions for a publisher exceed $100.00 USD, an email is sent to both the webmaster of the site and the registered domain owner from WHOIS information. The email explains how to verify the ownership of the website with Brave Software.”

    You can let Brave automatically add all websites you visit or you can limit payments ONLY to sites you designate. The user specifies a monthly dollar amount to be divided among the websites to receive payments and each month Brave reminds you to confirm/edit which sites you have it set to fund. Funding is via a user’s Bitcoin account, preserving user anonymity and funding security.

    For all of this effort on the user’s part, he or she is blessed with a VERY effective pop-up and ad-tracker/cookie blocker, plus many other privacy and security parameters that can be turned off easily (or selectively edited) on those occasions that they interfere with browsing of a site or has some other undesired effects. These features are not contingent on participation in the payments program, either. Here, I suppress all of Brad’s annoying inline ads (sorry, Google AdSense) but allow those cookies that permit his metrics software to run so he can have accurate readership stats. I hope he has received enough for payments, though I’m only allocating $5 at this point for the monthly divvy among the top sites I regularly visit, including bradwarthen.com, so I doubt he’s benefitted…yet.

    FWIW, gang…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Sounds complicated…

      And it has an element that worries me. It sounds like it further breaks down the relationship between a reader and a newspaper as a specific institution in a community, with a particular identity.

      All my career, I deeply valued the idea of working for, say, The State instead of Knight Ridder or McClatchy. We weren’t some link in a chain, we were an editorially autonomous entity with our own minds, our own local knowledge our own role in a particular community — a role that we shaped by the decisions that WE made. And it was particularly important for me to make that distinction as editorial page editor — which fortunately was usually easy because EPEs seldom had any kind of interaction with corporate types. But I was very sensitive to the fact that readers assumed corporate had something to do with editorial policy — nothing could have been further from the truth, and I found it deeply insulting. I mean, why did I work so hard at making editorial decisions if people were going to think they were made by someone else, and I was some sort of ventriloquist’s puppet?

      I’m probably not explaining well why Dave’s comment made me think of this…
      But the idea of a readers’ business relationship with a newspaper being part of some multisite aggregation bothers me.

      I subscribe to The State because I want to read The State, specifically. I have the same relationship with The Washington Post, and The New York Times. And The Wall Street Journal, before subscribing got to be too rich for my blood.

      And for me, it IS a relationship.

      Sure, I dip into and out of LOTS of other publications and sites, through social media, every day, and I value that diversity of perspectives. But a subscription, to me, is a relationship with a particular entity…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That comment WAS a lot longer. It originally contained an anecdote illustrating my point. But I cut out the anecdote for three reasons: I didn’t think it would fully succeed in explaining my point of view to anyone who had not been in my shoes. It might even make me look like a jerk, and why further reinforce that impression? And finally, it might have been unnecessarily embarrassing to some other people who were not named but were recognizable to people in the know, and why do that if I wasn’t even sure if I was getting my point across?

        I explain all that in case you had started reading the anecdote before I removed it, and wonder what happened to it…

  4. Doug Ross

    I’ll pay for content that is ad free and useful. I will whitelist sites that have ads if they ask me to and I use them regularly. When I received a hardcopy version of The State, I felt I was paying for the service of the daily delivery more than the content. Now that I don’t require The State to place a hardcopy in my mailbox and pay for my own internet access to go to TheState.com, I feel that ads should be sufficient to pay for what I use (a click or two per day to read a particular story).

    Brad – do you have a guess at what percentage of The State’s operating expenses go towards the production and distribution of the hardcopy paper? If The State decided to go all digital tomorrow, would its expenses be cut by more than half? Could the entire online “paper” be produced with fewer than 100 (50?) people?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Two things you need to understand, and they’re pretty fundamental. Actually, it’s more like one thing:

      1. Unless there’s been a dramatic shift since I left the paper, online ads simply do not pay as well as print ads. So no, I’m pretty sure they don’t pay for the newsgathering, even with the much-diminished staff.

      2. Again, online ads simply do not pay as well as print ads. So there has to be a print product. I’ve been ready to retire print since, well, before there were even PCs in most American homes — since the early 80s. (As soon as we went from typewriters to mainframe, I started wanting the story to go to the reader, instead of the composing room, as soon as I hit “SEND.”) But as much money as it would have saved us to ditch the print product (and you’re right; it would have been a lot, like 30 or 40 percent), we could never do without the revenue.

      As I say, my facts and figures may be a bit out of date, but I think what I just said holds true overall. If it didn’t, you’d have seen a lot of papers ditching print by now…

      1. Doug Ross

        It’s turning off Adblock on a specific site.

        I am still interested to get a sense of what % of operating expenses the production of the hardcopy paper entails. It’s got to be more than 50% — assuming you wouldn’t need that huge plant to run an online news site.

        I hadn’t purchased a paper from a vending box in quite a while and was really surprised to see daily copies going for $1.50 — it wasn’t The State — somewhere outside of SC. Who would pay $1.50 for one paper?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          You’re seeing that because with the slide in ad revenues, circulation has had to raise the price for the paper.

          The sad thing is that we’ve trained people to think $1.50 is a lot, when it doesn’t even come anywhere CLOSE to covering the cost of producing that paper — or a website, for that matter. That’s because from the time newspapers started in colonial times, advertising has borne the brunt of the cost.

          But here’s what killed ad revenues: The whole thrust of marketing changed. It used to be, everybody trying to sell goods or services wanted to reach an entire geographical market, such as a metropolitan area, and the best way to do that was through a mass medium that had excellent penetration in that market. And nothing was better than newspapers.

          Then, starting in the ’80s — before the Web — marketers started wanting to chase individual customers, rather than communities. Initially, they did it with direct mail. Then, they developed those little plastic tags on your keychain that get swiped in the checkout line. Then came the Web, the perfect medium for chasing individual customers.

          To compete with that, the newspaper sells these digital packages that have nothing to do with the newspaper. We were just explaining this to a client who thought we were talking about banner ads on thestate.com. No, it’s more like Amazon and Google ads — ones that follow individuals wherever they go on the web and send them ads keyed to their interests.

          None of this would be necessary, of course, if people were willing to pay for a newspaper what it costs to produce it. But how’d you like to shell out 10 bucks for that paper?

          1. Doug Ross

            Demographics are working against hardcopy newspapers. I’m sure The State has the stats on the average age of a hardcopy subscriber. Probably 45+ and increasing every year.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, yeah, mos def (I’ve been watching “The Wire” again).

              And when nobody wants the paper product, the ad revenue won’t be as attractive any more…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Personally, I read several “papers” each day, but all on my iPad.

                Sometimes my iPad, which is getting old on me, freezes up for several minutes — I just have to wait it out, and it’s fine again. But one morning it did that and I didn’t want to wait, so I went and grabbed a physical copy of The State. Not nearly as enjoyable an experience…

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