As the industry struggles to stay afloat, more and more newspapers are charging readers for online content. But instead of being straightforward, some papers refuse to call a spade a spade. (greenkozi/ flickr)

From family-owned independents to the largest national chain, it’s become clear that most U.S. newspapers will soon charge readers to visit their websites.

And when they finally decide to take the leap, these papers typically trot out a column or interview by a top editor or publisher explaining why they’re pulling the switcheroo.

Sometimes they’re straightforward.

But more often, they tend to sound the same — by turns sheepish and defiant, full of vague buzzwords and unclear reasoning. Here’s what I wish they’d say.

Dear Readers,

Since this is a newspaper, and we’re supposed to put the biggest news right at the top, I’ll get right to it: We’re going to start charging you money to visit our website. That’s obviously a big change, but it doesn’t look like online advertising will start paying the bills anytime soon. So now it’s your turn.

If you’re thinking that sounds kind of desperate, you’re right.

Newspapering was a stable thing for a long time. Then the Web came along and unlocked an endless supply of ad space — which, unlike old print advertising, also came with the ability to track how well an ad performed.

So we’ve had to cut costs, and that mostly means people. Buyouts, layoffs, unpaid days off, renegotiated contracts — you name it, we’ve done it. And I know you can tell the difference. Between advertisers buying fewer pages and fewer journalists producing news, our product has definitely declined. If you’ve picked up the printed version of the paper on any given Monday, you know what I’m talking about. The thing is so thin that when the paperboys try to toss it, it just kind of flutters away. I hear a few of them have taken to folding it up into a paper airplane. But at least we haven’t started cutting the number of days we publish! Not yet, anyway.

We’ve tried some new ways of making money. A lot of us did daily deals when the Groupon thing was hot. Some of us thought tablet computer apps were an easy way to rebuild the old print castle, and even started giving away or selling discounted tablets with subscriptions.

None of that really worked, though, so now we turn to you.

Look, I’m not going to blow smoke and say we’re actually providing you more choices, or just trying to bring you the news “wherever and whenever you need it.” I won’t try to pretend this is about fairness, and only getting what you pay for. You deserve to know what’s really going on.

For a long time, we had a deal. You paid a little bit for the newspaper, but it was kind of a token amount. We took your eyeballs and sold them to advertisers for big money, and that’s what paid for almost everything. They got an audience, we got cash, you got news. Great job, everyone! Meeting adjourned.

In those days, it made sense to charge readers a little something for the dead-tree version because it cost so damn much to produce. Union contracts, printing presses, barrels of ink, huge piles of newsprint, trucks, paperboys — it’s a pretty serious operation, and each new copy adds to the costs. That’s why the Internet version was free to use! Sure, the software and servers and everything you need to publish digital news costs money, too. But not as much. Once you publish the digital version, even with multiple updates per day, it goes out to everyone, instantly. Plus, all of the technology we use tends to get more powerful and cheaper over time, unlike newsprint (or Teamsters). Plus, keeping the digital version free helped grow our audience online, which helped us get more online advertising.

Man, I wish that would have worked. But now we have to try to get money from you for the privilege of using our digital product. It’s a big change to the unwritten contract we used to have, and you need to understand that.

I really hope you’ll stick with us. The good news is it looks like the big guys in the industry have figured out a way to make paywalls work. In fact, any newspaper not building some sort of paywall right now is basically leaving cash on the table, and we sure can’t afford that.

But I should also point out that this might just be a short-term fix. You can tell by looking at how our online subscription packages are discounted (or even free!) to print subscribers, to the point where it actually makes financial sense to order a Sunday paper that you will throw directly into the recycle bin just to save money on the website entry fee.

I know — crazy, right? That’s because print advertising, as much as it has declined, is still the way we make most of our money. If we can juice the numbers by sending out some print “subscriptions” that won’t really be read, we figure it doesn’t matter. We’re just hoping to prop up the print side of our business (especially for older readers who won’t care to figure out some workaround) and take in some more circulation revenue, too.

Won’t that shut out the next generation of possible readers? What happens when the Baby Boomers, ahem, lose the ability to subscribe? Hell if I know. We’re not in long-term planning mode here, people. Look, say what you will about newspaper bosses, but we’re not exactly shrewd businessmen. Most of your garden-variety journalists chose the profession in part because of their terrible math skills.

So subscribe. Please. We really need it. Don’t make me come around twice a year and do a little dance for money like a public-radio pledge drive — although, come to think of it, those guys’ business model is looking pretty attractive right about now. Man, how did this happen?


Tags: Innovation

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Kate Hutchinson

    Thank you for this. In 2003, the Times had a “pay for premium” experiment, and I paid $7/month to get the premium stuff, like the opinion columns or multimedia. Eventually they did away with it, but I didn’t feel cheated. Today I pay $15 for unlimited Times access on the web and my phone (although it would be extra for the iPad app). I understand that the Times puts out a quality product, and I am very willing to pay for it.

    I agree, that papers should put out there that unless we, the consumers, start chipping in, the good news reporting will go away. This is why I pledge to WBUR monthly. I appreciate good work, and realize that it has costs. I can’t go to a shoe store, try on a pair of shoes and walk out without paying. So why should people think the same applies to journalism?

    • AugustineThomas

      You’re wasting your money. It’s been 20 years at least since the NYT has had anything you couldn’t get somewhere else.
      And you never feel like an idiot paying for leftist propaganda?

  • Eric Lewis Benjamin

    People who live in glass pledge drives shouldn’t throw stones.

  • J__o__h__n

    In the past we paid for paper, printing, and delivery while the paper made money from advertising. Now we pay for internet access which covers the physical production and delivery expenses. Papers need to find a way to make money off advertising or go under.

  • midtempo

    Users on the web are too used to getting everything online for free. The newspaper business realized this too late after offering their content free for years and wants to change that norm. Good luck with that.

    Paywalls just tend to tick people off and generate ill will toward the paper. And people like Kate (commenter below) feel good pledging toward news using the public-radio/television model, but newspapers haven’t exactly adopted that yet, especially online. If Wikipedia can successfully raise money by pledge drives on their pages, I don’t see why the newspaper industry can’t do this either. It’s successful and seems to be working better every year for public radio, public television, and Wikipedia, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t generate ill will because it’s voluntary.

    • curtwoodward

      Yours and Kate’s comments taken together are fascinating – the idea that papers should just lay it out there was always something I believed (clearly), but I didn’t stop to think that this level of disclosure could actually *help* them achieve their business goals.
      But it makes total sense. The Web age has made people more curious about, and more easily able to discover, how the big institutions in society work. If you meet them halfway, maybe the good’uns will come toward you.

  • G.L. Dryfoos

    Here’s a problem: the internet runs on links. Links behind paywalls are essentially, to most users around the world, broken links.

    • midtempo

      I’m not even quite sure how results of pages behind a paywall even show up as links in search results. I think many newspapers (such as the make exceptions, that their page is accessible to someone clicking through a search engine, but I’m not sure that’s how it has worked.

      • malcolmintl

        FYI, there ARE paywall solutions that don’t affect SEO.

  • Ralph B

    Anyone who thinks that free content and ad-based revenue streams are the future of Internet business models are living in the dial-up world of 1997. More than 300 American newspapers have adopted some sort of paywall and not a single one regrets doing so.

    • midtempo

      Really? Not a single one regrets doing so out of 300?

      • Charlie

        And actually…there are over 400 now. This won’t stop.

        • missmsry

          So, who cares?

        • AugustineThomas

          And they all keep firing journalists, but they’re successful!!

    • kelli123

      OK you are slightly exaggerating and you know it. That’s baloney. Some have dropped their paywalls. Variety is the most recent to drop it.At least be honest.

  • What Burns My Bacon

    I’m a newspaper guy and it is a shame that the newspaper industry joined the World Wide Web only by kicking and screaming instead of jumping in when it first came out. I always felt if the pay walls were started on Day 1 that maybe the industry wouldn’t be so bad now.

    But you must have been reading my mind about giving discounts to the people who subscribe to the online editions. I hope it works out.

    And plus, I love the no-holds-barred honesty in this editorial and mixing in humor was a stroke of genius, while it also shows the seriousness of the situation.

    • curtwoodward

      Thanks, Bacon! I also have wondered for a long time why news publishers didn’t or couldn’t just see the Web as a new publishing medium. Instead, papers stuck to their script while deriding Web-based news as inferior, when in reality they could have jumped in and shown people how it should be done.
      But as they say, there’s a reason the railroad companies didn’t invent UPS.

  • Corey Lewis

    Let’s also not overlook how incredibly fantastic the author’s hat is.

  • Charlie

    A few thoughts:
    – Paywalls are annoying. If I send someone a link to an interesting article, I want it to work.
    – I have never paid for a newspaper subscription in the past and I’m unlikely to do so in the future, particularly since there are so many free sources of news. I simply don’t have time to read a newspaper every day, and I’m not going to pay money for something that I likely to not even look at.
    – Because newspapers are struggling, the amount of quality content just keeps going down, giving people fewer and fewer reasons to pay for it at all.
    – The only model that I really see working is to provide ALL content for free on the web, but have an inexpensive subscription available ($5 per month max) that would get rid of all ads and give you tablet and smartphone access that lets you download a newspaper to read offline. (A lot like the Spotify model.)

    • curtwoodward

      I really hope that, once they get the fire put out with the first wave of paywalls/meters, newspapers are able to evolve to a more nuanced and intricate method like you describe. It could happen! But it might take a fundamental shift in how they think about the print product, too – a premium, less-frequently published, more expensive magazine-type product, perhaps.

    • Grant

      Yes, because the music industry and the newspaper industry are exactly the same. Dear Charlie, I’m interested in paying nothing to read lots of uninformed dribble, much like that which you’ve demonstrated here. Where can I find more of this?

      • AugustineThomas

        Are you an out of work journalist? :)

  • Jasoturner

    Excellent column, While some news outlets are little more than house organs for political parties, good journalism remains a valuable and important product that we should willingly pay to support.

  • malcolmintl

    There are a variety of revenue models for digital news and other content, and asking for contributions, as does NPR, is just one approach. For the past several years, starting with the WSJ and later The New York Times, paywalls have actually attracted new readers by making the content they provide even more valuable to those who have access to it. Paid subscriptions to the WSJ and The Times have steadily increased.

    And contrary to what another commenter has said, before the Internet became widely used, news had never been free. People expected to pay for a newspaper. Today, digital news providers are continuing what is a centuries-long tradition of paying for journalism. It is a tradition that for a very short time, while the Internet was still getting its legs, wasn’t yet set in place.

  • malcolmintl

    There are a variety of revenue models for digital news and other content, and asking for contributions, as does NPR, is just one approach. For the past several years, starting with the WSJ and later The New York Times, paywalls have actually attracted new readers by making the content they provide even more valuable to those who have access to it. Paid subscriptions to the WSJ and The Times have steadily increased.

    And contrary to what another commenter has said, before the Internet became widely used, news had never been free. People expected to pay for a newspaper. Today, digital news providers are continuing what is a centuries-long tradition of paying for journalism. It is a tradition that for a very short time, while the Internet was still getting its legs, wasn’t yet set in place.

    • curtwoodward

      This point comes up all the time, and I address it in the piece – but were readers *really* paying for the journalism when they bought the printed paper? They may have thought so. But economically, they really were helping to offset the cost of the delivery system.
      That might be a distinction without a difference. But my overall point is that newspapers have not been good about explaining just how things worked, and how that’s changed, and why. They’ve just said “you have to pay now. We need it. You need us. Cough it up.”

      • malcolmintl

        Good point about the cost of newsprint delivery, Curt. However, whether print or digital, writers still need to get paid. There’s also the cost of internet delivery, which is not free, although it might seem like it is. Someone needs to pay for the broadband, software, domains, and other infrastructure needed to accomplish the virtual delivery of news. None of that is free for the publisher, and if readers value the content, they should be willing to continue to pay for it.

        • kelli123

          Hey – I’m a writer, and I need to get paid. But I also like it when what I write is read by the largest possible audience, and the paper is shrinking my audience, not just a lot, but a whole big lot. I write so people can use the information to do whatever they need to in their own lives. I don’t just write for the rich who can afford to read my story. I write for the poor person who can struggles with a job and a family too. If I write that a new program is available to help them, they will never get to read it.

          I am against paywalls, totally and completely against them. I am angry at the publishers who were so stupid that they didn’t jump on the net and as one person above said, show ‘em how it should be done. They should have been the leaders and now they are reduced to begging their readers to pay. Or trying to force them if you want to call it that, since most won’t pay. So no this is not a solution, as I just said above.

          So yes, I need to get paid, but this isn’t the way because it isn’t just ME and my interests at stake here. (I see journalists and editors and publishers going “Yeah! Paywall! That’s the ticket!” ) There’s a larger interest and that is that the public is able to be fully informed on any issue so that our country can be as great as it is supposed to be with an informed and intellligent population who is able to vote intelligently and understand what their government is doing,… and so on and so forth.

          • malcolmintl

            First, it’s great to hear a writer chime in and we want you to know we are helping you get paid and growing your readership as well. We don’t feel that paying $1 to $2 a day to read online what would cost a reader $1 per day to get in print is shrinking your audience. Poor people who used to buy a paper on the street can still afford to buy that same content online at the same price, sometimes even for less than what they were paying for in print. If you’re talking about homeless people who couldn’t even afford a copy of a street newspaper — which are sold by homeless people — they can always go to a public library and read anything they want either in paper or online.

          • Pablo De La Rosa

            So you wouldn’t write for a newspaper that costs $.50 cents like the one in my home town? That’s around $15 a month for me. Seems like paying $15 a month for the same content online is about the same amount of freedom?

          • MelissaJane

            But who SHOULD pay you for your writing, in your mind? I don’t see how there’s any revenue generated by fully informing the public for free, regardless of whether doing so makes our country great or not. If you want to write and get paid, where is the income to fund your paycheck supposed to come from?

    • kelli123

      You can’t excuse the backwardness of the industry – publishers dithering around trying to figure out what to do with the internet like a bunch of first graders still learning to read. So they got themselves into a royal mess, always behind the times, and yes they are jumping on paywalls but no this is not the ultimate solution. I have nothig to offer regarding what the solution should be, but this is not it. They’ll sail along for a few years and then crash because there are not enough new payers and they can’t survive on what they have. And meanwhile, free news will be springing up all around them, adding to their woes. No, this is not the answer. It’s an inconvenience and it is going to make news only for those wealthy enough to afford it for a while. Unfortunately, those will be of a particular political party, mostly. But, we’ll see.

      • malcolmintl

        Just because the newspapers were late to the paywall game doesn’t mean it won’t succeed. Remember when television programs were totally free for decades and then HBO and other cable channels were introduced with pay to view? Now pay-to-view programs are the big hits drawing millions of viewers who expect the quality programming they get on these channels. It just goes to show that people do accept change when it improves content.

  • Press_to_Digitate

    Paywalls will ultimately fail for general interest publications like newspaper sites. Other organizations will produce and post better news more economically, without the legacy sunk costs that the print publication world has to cover.

    Today, many other internet news sites which are entirely advertiser supported, provide much broader, deeper, and richer news coverage than the New York Times, Washington Post, etc. Newspapers – and the U.S. news networks (CNN, MSNBC, FOX) – are in a death spiral of shallowness, blandness, and obsession with pop culture trashy celebrity news, rather than covering what important things are happening in the world.

    For *REAL* news, go to Politico, TheHill, or RollCall for US national affairs; to Al Jazeera or Reuters for global news, etc. Let the dinosaurs of the Times, Post, CNN etc. dry up and blow away. The news will just keep coming, for free. (and of better quality, to boot)

    • curtwoodward

      As a reformed wire service statehouse reporter, I must say: Politico?!? NOOOOOOOOOOO! :)

    • AugustineThomas

      I agree with your point, but most of the sources you mention, Politico, The Hill and Al Jazeera, even Reuters, are in the leftist drivel camp.

  • Kelli123

    Very well written!! And I hate, no, loathe paywalls. And I will get around one every which way I can or just leave the site and shrug. But, despite my attitude, that was very well written. Good job!

  • AAPD418

    I worked at a newspaper. Once upon a time it was a great newspaper. Not any more. But the Internet didn’t destroy it. Stupid management did. Wise guys from Chicago. They believed newspapers are the same everywhere. They were wrong. The old paper still belongs to them. Now that they are out of bankruptcy they are trying to sell it. They paid $600M 12 years ago. They’ll sell for 2/3 now.

  • luke

    because you need software, but they cost too damn much!!

    buy need windows or other software?

  • Roy Dunn

    Why pay for a News paper that has nothing in it?

  • David Webb

    All newspapers have the same tired content of propaganda on race, sex, sexual orientation, global warming etc. A non-PC newspaper might be different and worth paying for, but why the hell would I pay to be propagandized on multiculturalism?