Pay Walls Will Fail: Nobody Wants to Pay for Online Newspapers


The debate about the future of journalism rages on, with novel ideas and tantrums from all sides. But this piece of news is sure to give the argument a big shove: More research has shown that most people just won't pay for online newspapers.

Analysists Harris asked one simple question to 2,000 adults who regularly surf the Web: "How much, if anything, would you be willing to pay per month in order to read a daily newspaper's content online?" Before you read on—have a think about that yourself, and come up with a figure you'd find acceptable.



Got a figure in mind? Check out the result's of Harris's poll then:


The figures are almost impossible to question: The vast majority, that's 77%, of those surveyed said their price limit for paying for online newspapers was zero (East coasters were more definite about this with an 81% figure.) That's terrible news for those in the industry who think that future revenues lie in bricking up their news content behind a pay wall. And it gets worse: The 23% segment who are prepared to pay anything at all is dominated by 19% in the "$1 to $10" category—a pitiful sum as far as newspaper moguls would be concerned. Perhaps most damning is the statistic revealed elsewhere in the survey that 10% of those questioned never read a newspaper at all, either physically or online.

This shouldn't be surprising—we've known for years that print newspaper readership is in a slow decline, and those of us who spend much time online are thoroughly used to the idea of paying nothing at all to view Web content. Nevertheless, that stark 77% figure is surely food for thought for the Murdoch-supporters in the news industry.

Will it convince the old guard that paywalls are a dumb idea? Almost certainly not, of course. Those in charge of newsprint's oldest purse strings will argue that their position on paywalls is the right one, and that the public just needs to like it or lump it. They'll probably even throw in the tired old line that this is the only route to go if the tradition of the free (how ironic) press is to be continued into the future. But it seems those advocating this tactic will have a lot of work to do: Convincing nearly 80% of its audience that they're wrong won't be easy.

And there may be another implication, concerning e-readers. Much noise is made about the possibility of e-readers being a new home for traditional newspapers—after all, the e-ink page is typically black and white, and the text is locked, protected, and uneditable (compared to Web pages). But if 77% of people won't pay for online papers, why would they shell out even more pay for an e-reader version?

[Via CNET]

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  • Thom Mitchell

    Newspapers are fighting not only the battle to get customers to pay online but they are also fighting demographics. The older a person is, the more likely they are to be a newspaper reader, and the inverse is true as well with very few people under the age of 30 bothering to read a newspaper. Newspaper readers have literally been dying off for decades and the old business model of advertisers generating the bulk of revenues for newspapers has been decimated by the web (especially Craigslist). As newspapers raise daily subscription costs - they've seen their readerships drop by significant amounts. But this further exacerbates the problem because as their readership shrinks they become less desirable to advertisers thereby generating less revenue. Outside of the top 3 papers (WSJ, NYT, and USA Today) very few newspapers will exist in another 10-20 years.

    Thom Mitchell

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    Andrei, thoughtful comments. But, what do you think about the Huffington Post model? That seems to be quite successful.


  • David Khalil

    It would really take a concerted effort of many major newspapers to push paid content successfully into the market. If a single newspapers goes into paid content, there simply to many alternatives of similar quality that are available for free.

    Michael Stein

  • Andrei Timoshenko

    Articles require money and effort to produce. Therefore, if no revenue is generated from the articles, they will not be produced. It is correct to point out that few people are willing to pay anything for news content. However, display ads (the only other option so far on the table) would almost certainly bring in less than the 19% willing to pay even $1 a month. How many ads must a user click in order to bring in a monthly $1 of revenue? For me personally, I have not clicked on an any online ad anywhere in several years. In most of their manifestations, online ads are distracting and annoying.

    I would, on the other hand, be willing to pay for quality articles, but on a per-article basis rather than a subscription-to-a-source basis. Pay a little to read the article, a little to save/archive the article for future reference, and perhaps even a little to get access to read and post comments. The better and more specialised the news, the more I would be willing to pay.

    History should also be considered. Newspapers were popular when there was little entertainment that was portable and fresh each day. Now, we are spoilt for choice. The problem of newspapers is not that most people expect text about serious topics to be free, it is that most people do not give a damn about text about serious topics. Why pay for news when you can pay to play a game, ogle celebrities, cheer your sport team, listen to music, twitter your friends about tonight's party, and vote for the next american idol? News will simply stop being a thing of mass consumption. Those who are interested, will consume top quality news from behind a paywall. The vast majority will have a significantly reduced exposure to news, but will not miss it, getting their occasional print news fix from some big central source (a la Google News) of machine aggregated and machine summarized press releases/press statements.

  • Richard Geller

    I'm guessing I'm one of those "odd people out," who would be prepared to subscribe to certain newspapers and magazines—not because I think of them as old style publications, but because I think of them as "communities of interest." To me, it's more like paying your dues, perhaps with the added privilege to express your opinion and post contact info and profiles; it's more about contributing financial support because you value the news and insights of the professionals along with the commentary of the community and want to be part of it. It's about participation, because you appreciate the community's intrinsic value. I think the paper and ink guys still think of what they do as creating a thing (albeit a virtual thing) when what the net creates are communities or tribes or networks with information and opinion (informed or utter crap) as the social glue. I feel strongly if positioned properly and fairly, people will pay to participate, and if they consider an online proposition fair, they will pay for content (e.g., iTunes).

    Richard Geller

  • Blake Elias

    Though I think pay walls are a bad idea, the survey question is vague. It simply asks if they would be willing to pay, but since they are used to getting it for free, of course the answer will be "no." We need to ask, if all the major publishers started charging, then would you be willing to pay? The answer might still be "no," but we can't be sure based on this data.

    Also, you mention the e-reader possibility at the bottom, but they will be superceded by more capable devices that will not have those limitations, eliminating any lock-in advantage for newspapers. (

  • Laurent Poulain

    There are two things that media moguls seem to miss.

    The first is that people are now used to read a few articles from a wide variety of magazines. Online subscriptions should reflect this. In other words, think multi-publications subscription instead of the traditional per-magazine subscription model.

    The second is that the protected content should add some value. News itself (i.e. pure facts) doesn't provide much value because everybody is listening to the same source (AP, Reuters, official press releases, etc.) and copying the same quotes. The value of protected content comes from investigation articles. *Maybe* editorials, although they face a strong competition from top blogs. You'll however notice that aggregators such as Google News are geared towards news articles and not investigation articles. There is definitely a void to be filled here.