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Why I oppose paywalls (it’s not about traffic)

December 22, 2009

Toll gates on the highway in France

Source: fmpgoh's Flickr page.

When I talk about the drag paywalls have on traffic, I’m not really arguing that point so much as appealing to those who would consider paywalls. Their argument is that the news industry is hurting financially, ergo people should pay for news. Paywalls destroy traffic and if no one’s coming to your site, well…how are you going to make money?

Traffic is only ancillary to my real reasons for opposing paywalls, though (I’ve basically said “eff traffic” in the anonymous comments argument anyway): I think information should be free (in principle) and I think it’s more rewarding that way.

Look, we all want traffic (obviously), but that can’t be your only goal for your site and if it is, your niche should be porn. So my goal is to inform. As journalists, we’ve always argued that information should be open and available to everyone (re: inform the public). True, some people can afford to pay for news while others can’t, but by that logic, we should charge on a sliding pay scale that’s dependent on income. Charging for news probably isn’t going to do much anyway.

A shared news and information community also leads to greater rewards, too. Imagine your favorite baseball team has made it to Game 7 of the World Series. Where would you rather be: watching the game on TV, alone, or screaming in a bar with 300 other people? Whether your team wins or loses, you just felt the same thing at the same time as 300 other people (most of whom you don’t even know). Now extrapolate that to something important. Do you really want to wall off your information and deprive people of that?

We never made that much money off subscriptions to begin with and it’s desperate to start trying to do so now.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2009 3:29 am

    There’s an interesting idea that the future of news is in community, not content.

    I agree that with paywalls not only are you getting fewer eyeballs on your content, you’re also limiting your ability to create a community.

    Having said that, if your product provides genuine value missed by the market, subscribers who are willing to pay could become the community; it just won’t happen with general news websites.

  2. December 23, 2009 10:25 am

    That’s true. I should make it clear that I’m not contending that paywalls don’t work period, I’m just saying that you can’t put a newspaper online and charge for it. Sites like the Wall Street Journal and ESPN get away with paywalls (on “premium” content) because the content they’re selling offers the consumer an opportunity to make money back (selling/trading stocks and gambling, respectively).

    In those two cases, you could be looking at very powerful communities that only exist behind paywalls, but the “what’s going on in my neighborhood” crowd won’t ever be like that because they can just as easily log onto Facebook and share information with their friends.

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