Arment Dietrich

Why Scale the Paywall?

By: Arment Dietrich | September 14, 2010 | 

Guest post by Valerie Merahn Simon, senior vice president at BurrellesLuce.

There’s been a lot of debate lately about free versus paid content online. All this talk leads to one simple question. What features will motivate readers to scale the paywall?

Back in college I found myself at the campus store with less than a dollar in change in my pocket. To the left of the cashier was the New York Times. To the right was an assortment of gum and candy. As much as I wanted a pack of gum, the decision was a no-brainer. I paid for my New York Times and headed back to my dorm, reading as I walked.

Fast forward to January 2011 when the New York Times will roll out a new metered model that charges users after they exceed a set number of articles per month. Faced with the prospect of losing Stuart Elliott David Carr, Cathy Horn, or other favorite columnists, what will I do? Will I reach back into my wallet? Will you?

Does anyone remember the episode of The Office where Dunder Mifflin employees agonized over whether to pay $1.99 to read a Wall Street Journal article containing information about the fate of their company? I certainly wouldn’t think twice about paying for that pack of gum, so why the reluctance over the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?

Dan Schaible, senior vice president, content management and my colleague at BurrellesLuce, shared some insights on the subject of paywalls with me. He noted that successful implementation of a paywall or subscription model is based on two things: Content and availability.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to erect a paywall in front of news everyone else has,” Dan explained. Publications that consist primarily of AP, Reuters, and other syndicated content will not fare well behind a firewall. Likewise, exclusives that will simply be read and reported/repeated elsewhere don’t belong behind a paywall.

So why WOULD someone pay for content? It’s simple really, if you consider the purpose of consumption and anticipated value.

MediaBistro’s premium content includes transcripts from live panels and “how to pitch” posts that offer freelancers insights to help them land assignments. A subscription is an investment (in your career).

Likewise, day traders cannot depend on information that is not verified. Institutions such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal will prevail in trust because of the resources they invest to assure that the information is trustworthy.

If you knew content from a particular source could give you information that would help you get a job or promotion, would you subscribe?

If you believed a source could give you a competitive advantage, would you be willing to pay?

If you knew that subscribing to a site would help provide financial support and awareness for a cause you believe in, would you invest?

What if the subscription included access/networking opportunities with other subscribers/members who share similar interests? Or came with privileges and discounts to other related services? What if payment was as easy as using EZPass is at any toll in NJ?

What rewards or value would it take to motivate you to go beyond the paywall?

Valerie Merahn Simon serves as a senior vice president at BurrellesLuce and writes a national public relations column for She is a regular blogger for BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas.

  • I’m trying an experiment right now with a novel I’m writing on the fly as a kind of “performance art” improve – one chapter a week. You can find it at

    I charge $9.95 for a reader to take out a subscription to this novel in progress. Why did I opt to go this way?

    I think it’s an important experiment. First of all, the content is entirely unique. I’m rely on my rep as a writer to get people over the paywall. The pay is an important part of the experiment because what this is about is how novelists might reach their audiences directly – realizing the much vaunted new connections that the ‘net has promised us.

    Without pay, what is there for aspiring writers? If the experience we have now is actually going to replace the printed word as we know it there has to be some kind of living for writers. So I took the plunge and started the experiment.

    So far it’s not going as well as I’d like, but it’s generated some income for me. It remains an experiment, however, because it’s all one big learning experience. Among the many things I’ve learned is the disconnect in timing between getting the word out and the actual performance of a novel on the fly.

    I’ll let everyone know when I’m done how I think it turned out. Yes, I’m keeping a lot of stats! But it is important to generate some kind of income for projects like this – otherwise there is little incentive to keep doing them. Eventually, we will all have to get used to paying something for certain kinds of unique content – or accept that quality must suffer.

  • Before the days of content being shared over the internet left, right and centre, it would have been very difficult to find out the content of a printed news publication. What were the options? Ask a someone else who had read it? Pick up a copy on public transport? Hope a TV or radio broadcaster would cover a story?

    Today though it is easy. What can be done to prevent content being shared online? Not an awful lot. Even with paywalls being put in place, there are very few measures to prevent people sharing what they have read.

    I know the counter argument would be that readers wouldn’t want to share content that is of such high quality and that gives them such a competitive advantage but I am not so sure. I still think much premium content would get out and spread.

    I completely agree that if there is enough value and purpose then some people will be willing to reach into their pockets – your college example is a good one – but we are living in different times and for a news publisher to produce lots of great content that a strong readership will be willing to pay for but not pass on is extremely unlikely.

    That’s just my take though. The challenge has been set. It’s a pretty tough one so we will have to see if they can succeed with a strategy that spells out ‘control’ to me.

  • Valerie, this is something we discuss at length internally…do we have content that no one else produces that we can charge people to access? We think we do … because it’s less about reporting what everyone else is reporting and more about our intellectual property that has allowed us to build a successful business to this point. I think if companies create “products” out of their intellectual property (videos, podcasts, eBooks, webinars, white papers, etc.) they can achieve the one-to-many approach and charge for the service.

  • You know, I think the big difference between the NYT example and the paywall for thought leaders – is quality, consistency and differentiation. I’d absolutely pay for access to NYT, and likely WaPo too. They deliver consistently high-quality content.

    Too often, though, B2B thought-leader orgs are more Miss than Hit. And there’s a LOT of recycling of material.

    Plus, businesses have completely different quirks around what they will/won’t pay for. Often they’ll agree in theory that content is worth paying for, but don’t follow through.

    I like your point about FT & WSJ – but they’ve been around for so long and have great perception as standard-bearers – how long would it take an unknown org to get there?

    • Gini Dietrich

      Maureen, Mr. D and I had this conversation over the weekend. He’s mad that he’s soon going to have to pay for NYT articles because a) he’s used to getting them for free and b) he can get the same content for free somewhere else. So, for you, what is it about the NYT that makes you want to pay for the access?

      I agree that most B2B “thought leaders” are more miss than hit and there is an echo chamber of a lot of people saying the same things. Heck, I’m guilty of it when I can’t think of a blog topic so I turn to my Google Reader for inspiration.

      But I still think SMBs will pay for content they can’t get anywhere else. Of course, I have nothing to base this on than gut while you have real experience for it. Maybe I’m much too cocky?

      • Great questions. I’m sure Mr. D is a lovely guy, but…

        NYT has been flying without a net for some time. That can’t last. If they continue in this manor, either their quality will seriously degrade OR they. must. charge.

        The thought leader space is a bit of a different case. My scientific gut tells me that likely a good 75% of NYT readers value NYT content as significantly better than most other news sources. (I’m guessing Fox fans would likely feel the same.)

        I don’t think we’d have anywhere near those #s on the thought leadership consumption space. I’ve been actively on-line in B2B sales and marketing for at least three years. I know what’s out there. I *might* pay for access to Tom Peters. Can’t think of what else I’d consistently pay for.

        That said, my experience is one data point and does not a trend make. I also don’t represent a $50M business. We may be at the beginning of a very cool trend where businesses will pay for content that they value like I value the NYT.

        If anyone can do it, Gini, you can.