Limiting Access

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Newspapers continue to redefine themselves in the Internet era with online multimedia delivery methods, but erecting pay walls for some readers seems counter-intuitive if not completely illogical.

Recently, one national and one prominent state newspaper—The New York Times and the Tulsa World—both launched systems that limit the number of online articles a reader can access per month unless they purchase a subscription. The cheapest monthly subscription for The Times online costs $15. Readers are asked to subscribe after accessing 20 articles in one month. For the World, it’s $14.99 and 10 articles.

The newspaper industry has been in a steep financial decline in recent years. As it transitions from hard copy to electronic delivery methods, the overriding dilemma has been how the industry can survive financially in the electronic age. No one should blame The Times or the World for trying to make money—they are for profit businesses after all—but pay walls are not the answer to this dilemma for what seems like obvious reasons.

Here are some of those reasons:

It won’t work. Readers can simply go to other sources, and not just other news outlets, to find information they need. Governments, businesses, and think tanks, for example, are expanding their web content. There are a growing number of independent web sites and aggregators. An increasing number of citizen journalists offer analysis and even basic news content often ignored by the corporate media. Consider iGoogle, which allows users to manage their specific infospheres, or aggregate readers, which allow people access to multiple sources with limited clicking. It seems archaic and clichéd to point this out, but there’s an overload of information on the web. If readers want to find out about a particular issue or news event, they can just go web surfing. Newspapers don’t own the news. It should go without saying that pay walls result in a decrease in page views, which then result in diminished online advertising revenue.

The math doesn’t add up. It would be financially impossible for most Internet users to pay for access to all news content from several different publications. Are most Internet users ready to spend $300 a month or more to subscribe to publications or will new, no-pay sites simply fill in the gap? The pay-wall model, if applied to publications across the board, is not sustainable. It limits access to content, which then pushes readers away from the entire corporate-driven online news industry.

It will create a backlash. Easy and free access to basic information about our society is an integral part of the Internet. If the corporate news industry wages a war against this principle, Internet users will go elsewhere and the industry will decline further. Each time a user encounters a pay wall is a moment of frustration. How many such moments will it take for a user to change brand loyalty or just further dismiss an industry dominated by monopolies? The argument that because people currently pay for hard copy newspapers online readers should pay for content as well is a red herring. The Internet has completely reshaped how information gets produced, delivered and consumed. Applying an old, print model of the newspaper industry to the Internet is a fundamental error.

The corporate news industry was slow to respond to new technologies, and, after reluctantly accepting reality, it continues to toy with the idea of limiting access to online information to make money. It also continues to waste paper and ink to produce non-clickable newspapers at an enormous cost. Some media outlets want its electronic users to essentially help subsidize hard-copy newspapers for non-Internet users, who won’t or can’t get online.

The bottom line is this: Despite criticism about its information and misinformation overload, the Internet is a vibrant space that mirrors the culture in a myriad of ways. There’s no turning back now. Newspaper industry pay walls ignore this fundamental fact, but you won’t read much debate about this argument in the corporate media.