To paywall or not paywall. That has been the question that newspapers and magazines have been asking over the last few years, debating whether or not a move to charge readers to view online content would help or harm the publications' existence.
According to some early data from Journalism Online, an e-commerce system of sorts that allows newspapers to charge their regular online visitors, suggest that the paywall may not be the kiss of death to ad revenue and traffic that some had predicted.
It's worth noting that the sample size for Journalism Online's data was small - only about 2 dozen small- and medium-sized newspapers - but the findings suggest that these newspapers were successful with their paywall implementations. It reports that monthly unique visits to these websites fell zero to 7%, while page views fell zero to 20%. No publishers reported a decline in advertising revenue.
However, those newspapers that reported little impact from a paywall were those whose restricted access was only partial. Rather than locking down and charging visitors for all content, these newspapers had instead limited the number of articles that visitors could read for free each month, making it clear to their readership that most wouldn't be affected by the paywall restrictions.
"If you set this meter conservatively which we urge people to do, it's a nonevent for 85, 90, 95 percent of the people who come to your Web site," Journalism Online's Steve Brill tells The New York Times. Most papers, says Brill, set a limit on the number of free articles somewhere between five and 20 per month, and charged a monthly subscription fee from around $3.95 to $10.95.
The findings seem to support the argument that people are willing to pay for some online content, but not all of it. But it's unlikely to end the debate on how and if newspapers - not just the major dailies like The Wall Street Journal and The Times, but smaller papers like the ones in this study - can move from free to pay (or partial pay) without losing readership and revenue.
Photo credits: State Library of New South Wales, via Flickr