Online paywalls vs journalistic crack cocaine?

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Should You Be Worried About What Paywalls Are Doing To The Internet?

Online paywalls are proving so profitable that over the next three years, 90% of online content will require a subscription according to new research published by Simon-Kucher & Partners. And as Youtube announces that it will soon be creating a paid-for only service, we investigate how the rise of subscriber models will change online content and news production in the near future.

Where are the paywalls?

The was one of the first to use a paywall, and recently the Telegraph announced it will be creating a section of its website for subscriber-only content. The Guardian has claimed it doesn’t plan to do so, although I predict it will dedicate at least a small section of its website to paid-for content before the end of next year. These are just a few of the forty-something percent of news outlets around the globe that have jumped on the bandwagon to try and recover from the death throes of print.

There are also a whole host of specialist industry websites that have been doing this for years, but as competition in the paid-for news sector grows, do general news and content sites really have a unique-enough offering to warrant forking out for a subscription?

Paywalls could improve standards of news reporting

A few years back Zeta’s own Roger Allen wrote that apps and subscription services would save journalism by giving people a convenient and enjoyable way to get their news fix on-the-go. To attract the commitment that a subscription warrants, and to hang on to subscribers, reporters must bring some top-notch investigative insight to the table – probably not the kind that involves hacking into answerphones that was highlighted by the Levinson enquiry. And in a similar way, with YouTube’s launch of subscription fees for YouTube channels, channel owners, and ‘superusers’ will also be encouraged to create more interesting and useful content.

But how will news be better?

Imagine you’re looking to pay for a subscription – would you choose a name you associate with trust and a reporting style that reflects your needs and values, or do you line the pockets of a media mogul whose ethics make you feel a little bit queasy?

Impulse-buying into the guilty pleasure of red-top gossip is easier to justify when purchasing hangover-cure snacks from the corner shop (you’re only lining Murdoch’s pockets with 35p after all – and those headlines are SO attention grabbing!) – however, in the cold light of day, if I’m paying for a subscription then I’d rather read something that delivers the facts about issues that affect me, mixed up with some interesting opinion and, most importantly, content I can rely on to make me sound highbrow in conversations. (Kidding!)

So, perhaps paywalls will create a more selective consumer, in turn raising the bar and placing a higher value on ‘quality’ journalism. Theoretically the reduced level of competition in the celebrity gossip market could potentially alleviate some of the pressure on journos to winkle every last gory detail from celebrity scandals, and therefore would also curtail such evil Murdochellian practises as phone hacking, and not letting the truth get in the way of a good story…

Bucking the trend

…Or maybe not. To coin a tabloid cliché, the Daily Mail is bucking the paywall trend with its free online offering. As the world’s biggest news website, the forces behind have obviously thought long and hard about its market and have created a formula that is more addictive than crack cocaine, according to its editor, Martin Clarke.

The DM’s online presence differs somewhat to the printed format – content is driven by its aggressive SEO strategy and is all about gaining as many clicks as possible. The site features much less current affairs/political news than the traditional version of the paper, instead focussing more on ‘celebfotainment’ features that are monitored for clicks and churned out according to trending topics. Celebrity news holds broader appeal across the globe because it is relevant to a wider audience, evidenced by Mail Online’s demographics: 112.6m monthly global unique browsers, making it the first newspaper website to record over 100m.

The other reason for DM’s success can arguably be attributed to the controversial nature of its articles.

The ‘sidebar of shame’ – crack or wack?

Mail Online articles deliberately take a controversial angle on current affairs, diets, relationships, etc. Its reporters and SEO content editors (for that is whom DM employs to tweak the headlines to hook those all-important clicks according to an anonymous whistleblower) appear to be briefed to inflame and enrage readers, generating incredulity and multiple shares on social media – often going viral – and of course helping to net some healthy ad revenue in the process. Who could forget that Samantha Brick column?

Once you’ve landed on one article, it’s hard to get away – according to, the DM’s statistic site for advertisers, MailOnline users spend on average of 43 minutes on the site. The ‘sidebar of shame’ as it has become known, is a right hand column of headlines that demand to be clicked, more often than not due to a sense of incredulity because of titles like these:

“Couch potatoes can’t help being lazy – they were BORN that way”

“Amanda Holden shows off incredibly long legs in tiny skirt as she reveals Simon Cowell’s strange toilet habits”

“Maggie did more for the workers than her Leftie critics ever did”

“The allure of ‘yellow fever': New documentary explores why so many white American men aspire to marry Asian women”

But what of the future…?

It looks as though the DM has well and truly cornered the market for guilt-free, subscription-free (and annoyingly compelling) content that generates multitudes of clicks – a direct contrast to organisations that focus on creating content that will make people reach for their credit cards and subscribe.

The decline in print sales has caused media outlets to diversify as they face a choice:  either get serious and charge for access, or go down the Mail’s ad revenue driven route, focusing on scandal and SEO while allowing users to view the goods for free.

It would be snobbish to say that paywalls are separating the wheat from the chaff, but they are certainly creating two distinct journalistic models: one driven by clicks and SEO, the other by a need to be unique from fellow paywall competitors and create something consumers won’t find for free.

It’s a beautiful thing: on one hand you have well-written, insightful content that’s (hopefully) factual and will tell you how to think like a real grown-up person. And on the other (slightly sweatier) palm, for those occasions when you’re compelled to find out the sordid truth behind Simon Cowell’s secret toilet habits, the information is right at your smutty fingertips. No judgement.