April 2, 2012
A common argument against putting up paywalls at news websites is that they only work if everyone does it. Naysayers contend that all it takes is for the competition to provide a free alternative and you’re sunk.
Looking at it market-by-market, that makes sense, but an industry-wide view provides a different perspective. As an increasing number of news sites ask readers to pay, it becomes the established norm. People will come to expect that if they visit a news site frequently, it will begin costing them.
This is why paid-circulation newspapers survive and often thrive in markets where there is a free-circulation newspaper. Readers know there is a free alternative, but they are used to the idea of paying for something with superior content and more frequent publication.
This raises the possibility that a news site with a reputation for high quality could indeed profit with a metered paywall. And there’s nothing like profit to motivate a publisher.
It remains to be seen, though, whether paywalls do indeed become the norm. Two good quality sites that appear content to remain free are the Washington Post and Toronto’s Globe and Mail. If those two starting asking readers to pay, the writing truly will be on the wall.