Porous paywalls are an admission that virtually no one wants to subscribe to newspapers

Clay Shirky rings in the new year with another barn-burning essay about the state of newspapers, first noting that a "porous" paywall that allows 20 free pageviews per month is a tacit admission that pretty much no one who visits the paper's site is a potential customer for the paper's product:

To understand newspapers’ 15-year attachment to paywalls, you have to understand “Everyone must pay!” not just as an economic assertion, but as a cultural one. Though the journalists all knew readership would plummet if their paper dropped imported content like Dear Abby or the funny pages, they never really had to know just how few people were reading about the City Council or the water main break. Part of the appeal of paywalls, even in the face of their economic ineffectiveness, was preserving this sense that a coupon-clipper and a news junkie were both just customers, people whose motivations the paper could serve in general, without having to understand in particular.

The article threshold has often been discussed as if it was simply a new method of getting readers to pay, to which the reply has to be “Yes, except for most of them.” Calling article thresholds a “leaky” or “porous” paywall understates the enormity of the change; the metaphor of a leak suggests a mostly intact container that lets out a minority of its contents, but a paper that shares even two pages a month frees a majority of users from any fee at all. By the time the threshold is at 20 pages (a number fast becoming customary) a paper has given up on even trying to charge between 85% and 95% of its readers, and it will only convince a minority of that minority to pay.

From there, Shirky moves into the paradox of 21st century journalism: the majority of papers are local, and local news is the one thing that civic minded people are likely to sustain, but local papers have all but abandoned local news:

Thresholds are now mostly being tried at big-city papers — New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Most papers, however, are not the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Most papers are the Springfield Reporter, papers with a circulation 20,000 or less, and mostly made up of content bought from the Associated Press and United Media. These papers may not do well on the God Forbid index, because they produce so little original content, and they may not find thresholds financially viable, because the most engaged hundredth of their audience will number in the dozens, not the thousands.

On the other hand, local reporting is almost the only form of content for which the local paper is the sole source, so it’s also possible to imagine a virtuous circle for at least some small papers, where a civically-minded core of citizens step in to fund the paper in return for an increase in local coverage, both of politics and community matters. (It’s hard to overstate how vital community coverage is for small-town papers, which have typically been as much village well as town crier.)

Newspapers, Paywalls, and Core Users


  1. Traditionally, the newspaper business didn’t rely on per-copy prices directly. Almost all their income came from advertisers. However, the ad rates depended upon the readership, and how many people were paying how much to buy the paper was considered an indication of how much it was valued and hence how much impact the ads might have.

    Translating that to the web has been an ongoing battle.

  2. I don’t know about local papers where the author lives, but the local papers here in my home town are 95% local content, supported by advertising by local firms, and it has been running since I was a child and shows no sign of stopping, and people read it because they can find out what the council is doing about those broken retaining walls or when the swimming pool will re-open after the earthquakes etc.

    1. Contrast with with The Age in Melbourne which used to be a quality broadsheet. Now they troll for page views and invent controversy. Its gotten to the point where I hate reading it so I avoid both the paper version and the on line version.

    2. Our local paper is like that.  It’s sadly had to go to one a week (it used to be daily), but it’s still reasonably popular for the same reasons.

      It seems to depend on the local area.  Where my parents live I would say there is much less obvious community spirit, whereas where I live people seem much more interested in what’s going on in the city.

  3. The “leaky paywall” doesn’t strike me as being at all flawed as a business model. My local bookstore has a leaky paywall. I can’t (wouldn’t) walk out with a book without paying, but I can browse it. Amazon has a leaky paywall. I have to pay to download music or books, but I can listen to or read samples. Ice cream shops often have leaky paywalls — they’ll give you samples if you ask nicely. Even Cory’s policy of having his books for sale AND available free could be characterized as a leaky paywall of sorts. I subscribe to the NYT for example, because, despite their faults, I value what they do. It seems fine to me that the paper’s also open to read freely, up to a point.

    1. Your analogy is fatally flawed because you’re making exactly the same mistake the newspaper sites are making. The “leaky paywall” situations you mentioned work precisely because the small portion you get is an incomplete part of a whole, and without the rest (a full ice cream cone, a complete book) the experience is unsatisfying and incomplete. People almost never walk into an ice cream store because they just want a tsp or two of ice cream. They want a whole cone (or other product), and the samples are just there to help them decide which one to buy. Ditto for a book excerpt – prospective buyers don’t consider an excerpt a complete item in and of itself (unless they’re simply looking for a specific quote or a sample of the writer’s style of comma usage). It is partial information to help them decide whether to buy the complete product (the book) or not.

      What the article author is saying, however, is that an article *is in and of itself* a complete and entire stand-alone product for most people. The newspaper is a bundle of small products, much in the way an ice cream shop is a bundle of flavors or a book store bundles a lot of different books. It is not a single product for which a “sample” (the cone or book you buy) is incomplete. If I go to a newspaper with a leaky paywall that offers 5 articles for free, it’s like going into an ice cream store that’s offering me 5 full cones for free – I won’t be buying any additional cones, and chances are I won’t even be eating all 5 of the free ones.

      As the author is stating, very few people indeed read a paper cover to cover, and view it a complete product that is incomplete with pieces missing. They buy it to read a certain section, a certain type of article and the rest is purchased simply because they can’t buy the paper in pieces. A truer “real world” version of the leaky paywall would be allowing people to read up to 5 or 20 articles out of a physical paper at the newsstand without buying the paper. Almost no newspapers would ever be sold if you did this. Which is something any newsstand owner can tell you is true for a fact, and why many of them have a “no pre-purchase browsing” policy.

  4. I always figured the cost of a newspaper subscription was just to have content delivered to my door. Now the internet delivers it to wherever I am.

    Local news seems to be the answer, and steady, reliable reporters. I go online to read a specific reporter’s work, not to browse around to see what’s going on. That’s what Yahoo News is for. The reporters will be the new stars.

  5. Um…400k digital subs at the NYT and still growing. What am I missing here?
    Decline in print advertising at the NYT paper in the last quarter- 9,984,000
    Increase in circulation at the NYT paper in the last quarter: 10, 403, ooo
    Overall increase in revenue at the flagship paper: 1, 931, 000
    And still growing. And pageviews are growing again.
    It is all in the quarterly report.

    EVERY other paper at the NYT company that was not paywalled had horrid revenue declines.
    Sure looks to me like the paywall is the only thing saving the NYT at this point and that the Boston experiment will be a success.
    Shirky would do better if he knew math and read balance sheets, as opposed to making abstract, lofty statements. All he does is reinforce the prejudices of his misguided acolytes.

    1. Mr. Sulzburger, welcome!

      One thing you might be missing is the whole “delete everything after ?gwh….” hack that the entire Internet has known about since, when, forever?

      You also seem to miss that people like me who don’t have to pay for the NY Times, but who occasionally enjoy reading their content for free, are an ever-growing trend. That isn’t something they’re going to put on their balance sheets, even if they were completely accurate.

      There’s also the entire halfassed-insult issue with the paywall, which Shirky notes but you ignore. Things like the NY Times paywall actively encourage people to take the Times’ content: first, by saying “don’t steal my content!” and second, by making it laughably easy to do so. Then hipping others to my noble deeds becomes a kind of civic virtue, something to proselytize about and share with the world.

      By “prejudices of his misguided acolytes,” are you snarkily referring to the generally accepted truth that content is free and users of the Internet do rather damn well what we please with our content? I call those facts.

      1. Tim… You and are going to have to disagree, because the totem that you embrace is “generally accepted internet truths” while mine is “mathematics”. These are mutually incomprehensible worldviews.

        The NYT paywall is growing revenue at the flagship paper. I’m a money and numbers guy. I don’t care to talk about anything else, let alone Shirky’s florid prose. So the rest of that stuff you mentioned… You can have it all. But I get the numbers- and they are correct.

        1. I’m not telling you to disbelieve their numbers. I’m just telling you that an ever-growing number of us happily steal their content, daily, by the virtual bucket. As I said before, I rather doubt they’d include those numbers in their “balance sheets.” You go on believing in those numbers all you want, as misleading and incomplete as they would seem to be.

          1. Where’s the problem with more people “stealing” the paper, if more people are also “paying” for it?

            Seems like a good model to me.

            And yes I do appreciate that hosting sites costs money, but not so much that you can’t recover costs by having a relatively small portion of your readership paying you for it.

  6. The Baltimore Sun has the 20 page limit for articles. You can also visit the home page, and section home pages (e.g. sports, lifestyle, etc.) for an unlimited number of times. I read somewhere that their paywall is easily broached by simply hitting escape before the page finishes loading.

    It seems to work, because if I forget to do that, I get an AJAX popup that alerts me to how many pages I’ve used and encourages me to subscribe. But I won’t.

    Their coverage of local news is spotty at best, rarely in-depth, and never gets into the real meat of the stories. National and world news are readily accessible by a Google News search. Just visiting the home page(s) I get all the news I need.

  7. I use the leaky paywall at the NY Times.  Because it would be $800/year (!) for home delivery + online access, delivered to where I live in California.

    I like the NY Times.  A lot.  But not $800 worth.  The teaser rates ($1.10/day average) are high enough, but past the intro period it just reaches out and touches in a special and inappropriate way, reminding one fondly of church experiences.

    I spend that much a year on periodicals, yes, but that covers probably 15 other magazines and journals.  Getting the Times delivered would not double the value of my monthly paper news experience.

    1. Digital-only access costs $420/year ($8.75/week). That is getting more into the realm of something I’d consider.

      Except that I quit reading the NYT years ago when they started up a paywall, so I just don’t turn to them for my news the way I used to. These days I turn to the BBC for world news, my local paper/TV stations’ websites for local news, and NPR and political bloggers for national news.

  8. Louis C.K. is far more important to the self-styled “Internet audience” than journalism.   The former gets $1 million.  The NYT gets pissed on.  

    1. To be fair, many of us stole Louis C. K.’s album too. But I really don’t get the connection you’re making in the equation: Louis C. K. indeed got over a million for his album, but where’s the link between the NY Times and journalism?

      1. I think Lois C.K’s experience appears very similar to the newspaper’s experiences with leaky paywalls.

        Yes, some people “steal” the content, but if enough people are willing to pay for it that you can afford to keep doing it and make a profit then what’s the problem?

        Seems to me that the newspapers have figured out something that the record industry is too dumb to figure out: that someone “stealing” your content is not necessarily a lost sale, but potentially a new reader/listener who you wouldn’t otherwise have.

    2. Louic C.K. humbly asked for $5. If the NYT learned a little humility, perhaps they’d get similar results.

  9. Let’s not get too sentimental over local news.  I used to be a proponent too.  Then came the time virtually every home in a few block radius got broken into, one after the other, during the day.  In one case a dog was poisoned in the process.  No coverage.  None.  Nada.  Zip.  The police blotter shows up hidden somewhere in the middle of the paper a couple times a year; when it showed up a couple of weeks after the crime spree started (they had just caught the guy) there was no indication that any home invasions had occurred at all that month.

    Also, local events are covered AFTER they happen.

    I’m no longer paying for a subscription, and am no longer starry-eyed about local journalism.

    1. That’s not right.  That paper obviously does not care and shouldn’t be in business, if in fact there is a viable publication around there.  I’m happy to say that my local paper does a lot better than that.

  10. Welp, if/when other paid news sources begin to offer as high quality content as The Economist for a similar price, I’d consider adding to my news budget. Yeah, I’m side-eyeing YOU, o hubris-based price-structured NY Times.

  11. Not sure if it counts, but the Guardian website is totally leaky in that it’s all free with no paywall, but I’ve subscribed to the iPad app at $20 a month because it’s a excellent way or reading a newspaper – better than in a browser.  Mind you I cancelled my paper subscription so depending on distribution costs on that they could be making more or less money.

  12. I worked for a small-town daily paper for a few years. Terrible pay. No benefits. Crumbling office with 15-year-old computers and, for a time, no Internet access. It was miserable. But it was also fantastic. I was a very important part of the community. I loved that and would gladly go back to it if I could support my family on the salary. Sadly, small-town papers just don’t have the funding they need.

Comments are closed.