Is Now the Time to Launch a Paywall?

Momentum seems to be building around the paywall model in the news industry at the moment—and it could provide an opportunity for associations with their own magazines or publications.

The news paywall, as a concept, has faced ups and downs over the years, as media outlets have experimented with the form in numerous ways.

Currently, evidence is strongly suggesting that we’re in an “up” period.

In recent weeks, a number of major outlets have either installed paywalls on their sites or announced plans to do so.

Some major newspapers, such as the Chicago Sun-Times, have drawn attention to the need for such business model changes in provocative ways. This week, the Sun-Times published a blank front page, drawing attention to the need to financially support the newspaper.

“Until now, we’ve offered our online content for free. But we can no longer afford to operate our business this way,” the newspaper stated on its website.

Magazines have also hopped on this trend. In recent months, Wired, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic have added them—in the case of the latter, re-adding it roughly a decade after removing it. And Bloomberg, a major financial news wire service that is largely funded by the use of expensive financial terminals, is looking into paywalls as well.

Even internet-first publications are looking into paid models. The startups Substack and Revue have encouraged a trend toward paid email newsletters, and the technology site The Information has built a significant success story from a subscription-only service.

Heck, even Google is taking a part in this phenomenon, through the launch of subscription tools—one of which it is making available to McClatchy, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country.

So, what’s driving this trend—and is it one that associations can hop onto? The short answer is that ad revenue isn’t doing the job for many news outlets, leading them to look for other options.

Additionally, there’s evidence that the public is embracing subscriptions as well. The New York Times, which made a big splash with its metered paywall in 2011, has seen its paywall revenue jump significantly in recent years—the company has more than 2.6 million paid readers, 2.2 million of this to the newspaper and 400,000 to its Cooking and Crossword apps. The company made $340 million in subscription revenue last year, per Recode, a jump of 46 percent from the prior year.

And while subscriptions are an imperfect tool—if you read a lot of stuff, you need a lot of subscriptions, and aggregator tools like Blendle can get expensive for heavy readers—media outlets seem to be finding momentum for them among both readers and reporters.

The issues with paywalls suggest that the ground going forward is a bit unsure—and it could leave niche sites out of the equation.

“Maybe the whole model of single sites running their own paywalls will not carry the day,” The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal wrote in November. “Somebody is going to try to make the process of accessing this paid content easier and cheaper, whether it’s Apple, Flipboard, Facebook, or a new entrant.”

Whatever the case, if your association has been interested in launching a paywall for its media site, now might be a good time to look into one. It looks like there might be an audience willing to pay.

The Chicago Sun-Times introduced its digital paywall via a blank front page earlier this week. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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