Brave New (Writing) World: The Paywall Returns

The New York Times just started its new “digital subscription” program — essentially, a paywall. The Dallas Morning News has also set up a similar plan blocking free access to its news. I’m sure other papers will follow.

And I’ve just reached a decision: I’m not going to pay for news.

Yes, back in the days before the Internet if you wanted detailed written news reports (and I did and still do), you had to pay for a subscription to a newspaper. But you weren’t paying for the news: You were paying for delivery. It costs money to get that paper to your doorstep every morning, and that’s where your subscription fee went.

Newspapers have always supported their news gathering operations from advertising revenue, not subscriptions. Trust me on this: I grew up in the newspaper business. I was practically born on a copy desk.

The same is true of magazines — I just got an offer for The New Yorker at $24/year and I’m sure that $24 just barely covers the cost of sending me 50 issues. The bigger the circulation numbers, the more a publication can charge for ads.

That explains why weekly newspapers in big cites like the Austin Chronicle or the Washington City Paper make money even though they’re free on every street corner. And, by the way, if you want those pubs delivered to your home, there’s a charge.

When it comes to online publications, we’re already paying for delivery. Computers and smart phones and such aren’t exactly cheap, and when you add in the cost of your ISP or phone contract, you’re paying quite a bit of money to get your information online. No, that money doesn’t go for content, but neither does the money you pay to get that paper at your front door or that magazine in your mailbox.

Now the newspapers claim the advertising method that sustained newspapers for the last couple of hundred years doesn’t work as well in the online world, though given that The Times is set up to send me ads based on where I do my online shopping, I’m a bit skeptical. They certainly know more about my shopping habits than any print publication.

Still, it does appear that we need new ways to support good journalism. Newspapers are in trouble. But I don’t think paywalls are the solution for the general interest publication.

Of course, there are publications that are supported through subscriptions. In general, these publications are very expensive, whether in print or online, and they don’t carry advertising. Usually, they’re aimed at a target audience that is willing to pay for information directly related to a particular field. This is a different business model from traditional newspapers and magazines. (It may be in trouble, too, but that’s a different discussion.)

And now there are nonprofit news organizations like Pro Publica and The Texas Tribune. They seek donations like National Public Radio, though they haven’t yet become as obnoxious in their fundraising as public radio. But they don’t run ads, either. They also aren’t suggesting donations equivalent to what it costs to put a newspaper on your front step 24/7.

Here’s my bottom line: If I’m paying for content online, on top of paying for Internet access and a reading device, then I want it without ads. And it better be damn good original content, not the same thing I can find a dozen different places.

I shouldn’t complain too much about The Times, because they gave me a free subscription through this year (apparently Lincoln paid them big bucks to offer deals like mine). But I’m not sure I’ll keep paying for it when the deal runs out — assuming they haven’t changed their minds again by then — and I’m not going to pay for the Dallas News or any other average paper. A lot of other people may not bother reading anything but headline news. The Times may survive using a paywall, but most other publications won’t.

That’s a loss, too, because one of the big advantages of the Internet is the ability to look at many different approaches to breaking news. That keeps everyone honest. But even if I were willing to pay, there’s no way I can afford to subscribe to all the different publications I might want to read on occasion.

I’m a writer. In my day job, I’m a reporter. I want to see the people who create what we read get paid. But the paywall for news isn’t the answer.

If you want more perspectives on this, a recent  On The Media was devoted to the subject.

ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 52 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.

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About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Brave New (Writing) World: The Paywall Returns — 9 Comments

  1. Nancy,
    I took a slightly different take in my blog post (linked in the website box, hope that works). My concern is that the NYT will lose relevance, because people won’t link to articles behind a paywall. And I do think the paper should be relevant.

  2. For those who want to follow paywall issues, I’m finding that subscribing to the Nieman Journalism Institute newsfeeds is most enlightening…as well as MediaBistro and Galley Cat.

    Even more entertaining? I remember when the go-to guy for the economics of news, Ken Doctor, was a regular writer for one of the Eugene-area weeklies, the Willamette Valley Observer.

  3. Fiction is different. First of all, it is exclusive and unique content. Secondly, books don’t contain advertising. When you buy a book, you are paying for the content, not just distribution.

    Fiction magazines that run ads and that have always been supported by ad revenue, with subscription income paying for delivery, are probably more like newspapers, except that the content is unique and not available anywhere else.

    I don’t have any problem paying for fiction if the money is going to the author and the editor and so forth.

  4. People have to be paid for producing content, or else freelancers (AKA me) will go out of business. And yet… I find that I’m now limiting the number of NY Times articles I click on. I agree that if anyone can pull this off, it’s the Times, which for all its faults is still a terrific news gathering institution… but still… I don’t click, not like I did before. Now, all I think about is how much one click might cost me.

    So, am I insane? Stay tuned.

  5. The UK Guardian is grabbing its opportunity with both hands.

    And what of the NY Times’s decision to charge readers for access to some of its online content?

    Rusbridger said: “I can’t see anywhere in world that’s tried charging [online] for general news that has made a go of it in the sense that you get enough people and enough money to make up for the loss of influence.”

    But, as always when he speaks about the subject, he added: “I’m not a Taliban of the free. If the New York Times ended up with hundreds of thousands of subscribers who were all going to pay decent sums of money, of course you’d be idiotic not to respect that and learn from it.

    “So I don’t think any of us can be in a completely entrenched position.”

    I also received on those Lincoln sponsored subscriptions, but my husband didn’t — nor did he take the time to get one when Lincoln offered it generally on the NYT site. Now he’s demanding that I c&p the things he wants to see. This is one of my primary objections (among the many objections) to the NYT decision: one user = one subscription, despite newspapers coming to a household are able to be read by everyone in the household. This insistence that there be no such thing as a household subscription really burned me. Of course, I’ve never forgiven the NYT for publishing all those lies running up to the invasion of Iraq post 9/11, nor has it ever apologized. So it will never ever again get a cent from me.

    At this point I trust the U.K. Guardian and the BBC in a way that I do not trust either the NYT or the WaPo.

    Love, C.

  6. I’m not sure I agree with some of your assumptions. The implication is that, once the information gathering has been paid for by advertising, there is no cost to the paper to deliver the content via the internet. I would counter that all of the expenses that we as consumers have on our end have a parallel expense to the on-line newspapers, on a much larger scale (e.g., the cost of computers, smart phones app conversion, online access, storage, backup, maintenance, etc., not to mention the energy costs required for all of the above). I’m not sure that it is reasonable for the consumer to expect all of those delivery costs to be borne by the provider.

  7. Rainycity1, you make a valid point about their investments. But still, what it costs me to be able to access online publications is considerably more than I would pay for their distribution under a print system.

    And the really frustrating thing is that the Internet gives us the ability to look at so many different things, but most of us could never be able to pay for subscriptions to every publication we might want to see on occasion. And we don’t always know in advance what those publications will be.

    We’re still in transition and I don’t know how the model is going to work out. But I don’t think the paywall is the solution.

  8. The other thing once considers with the NY Times is they are in the forefront — before the HuffPoo ever hit the internet — of not paying their writers their fair share.

    I know and have known many people very well who have or still do work as journalists at the NY Times. They went on strike more than once over syndication deals, for which they received no cut, and for other pay reasons.

    At this point, like the HuffPoo, the NYT is printing and blogging more and more content that comes from unpaid SUBSCRIBERS AND READERS, while reducing professional staff journalists.

    Love, C.