Newspaper Pay Walls Are A Good Thing - Here's Why

Guest author David Brauchl is chief communication officer for paid content strategy experts Piano Media. He was a professional news photographer for nearly 20 years, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times for his work in Sarajevo, South Africa and Germany.

Newspaper publishers struggle to successfully monetize their online content, and they are not getting any help from journalism schools, despite the fact that these are the very institutions preparing young people to enter the shrinking field and the ones you’d think would be trying to help newspapers stay alive, not hasten their demise.

Most people understand that the content found in newspapers costs money to produce. The cost of producing that content is not diminished when the content is distributed online.

Nobody should understand that better than academic professionals in the field of journalism.

Nevertheless, some in the field have become advocates for making content free, even to the point of encouraging students to circumvent newspaper pay-walls and, in some cases, showing them how it’s done.

Teaching Students To Steal

One example is Kristin Gilger, an Associate Dean at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, who recently sent an email to all associate faculty detailing how to avoid a paywall that The Arizona Republic had installed.

“With the Arizona Republic/azcentral.com going to a pay wall, you may want to share the following info with your students (especially if they’re required to read the newspaper for your class),” Gilger wrote. “A PDF of the front page of the Republic is available at the Newseum Web site.”

Gilger’s email set off a remarkable discussion among faculty in which several members detailed techniques for defeating pay walls. One professor, John Leach, explained to his colleagues how he circumvented all pay walls by using two computers, different browsers, deleting cookies and using the “incognito” feature on Google’s Chrome browser. He justified his subterfuge with the assertion that “the students need that money more than Gannett stockholders do.”

Another professor, Paul Atkinson, claimed he had “found a bypass to websites like the NYTimes and LATimes that restrict access.” His detailed instructions were to “copy the headline from the website, paste it in a search tab. The results will show the title and source. Sure, it takes a few extra seconds, but I’ve never been denied access this way.”

A Lone Voice Of Dissent

Only one faculty member, former Wall Street Journal reporter Anthony Ramirez, questioned the majority’s view that paying for content was reprehensible, writing that “I’m troubled by this ballooning information-is-free ethos.”

University professors routinely include local newspapers in their curriculum to provide students with valuable examples of journalism in action. Clearly they must understand the impact a newspaper’s failure would have on the local community.

However, the presence of a discussion like this at a premier journalism school where the ethical position is the minority view shows how difficult the business of journalism has become.

What is the source of this ethical collapse? When did even the people who depend on the future viability of the industry for the sustenance of their careers and the well-being of their families decide that stealing the news was an acceptable action? Who gave them that idea in the first place?

Papers Brought This On Themselves

One answer could be that newspaper publishers themselves created their own undoing. Starting 1996, all the news that was fit to print was given away for free using a business model that was wholly advertising-supported. This approach worked for a while, with newspaper advertising revenue topping out in 2006 at $64 billion.

What followed, however, was stagnation and decline. By 2011, advertising revenue from both digital and traditional sources dropped to less than $25 billion. Clearly, radical measures were needed to preserve the industry.

Enter the New York Times. The Grey Lady developed a reasonable pay-wall system that provided the casual reader 10 free online articles from the newspaper per month. For more dedicated readers, the New York Times requested payment for an annual subscription.

It worked. The paper gained more than 350,000 readers when the pay wall went into effect, and the business continues to add subscribers at a 10% rate quarter-on-quarter.

A Wake-Up Call To Newspapers 

While the New York Times’ pay wall does not completely discourage content theft, the paper’s bold approach served as a clarion call to the industry. With astonishing rapidity, other media publishers have jumped on the bandwagon. Currently, 25% of all U.S. newspapers monetize their content through some sort of payment system. Of course, there will always be readers who are comfortable with stealing proprietary content. No publisher can control the ethics of their readership. However, publishers can control the technology.

Until now, most content security was easily defeated by javascript, manipulation of cookies or browsers with incognito settings. Newspaper publishers, aware of the myriad flaws within their payment systems, have been ready for a solution.

Why This Matters To Me

How do I know about this, and why do I care? Genes maybe. My grandfather was the publisher of the Wheeling, W.Va., newspaper in the 1950s. My brother has been the editor of two major U.S. newspapers, and I made my living for almost 20 years as a photojournalist, covering most of the major conflicts in the 1990s, everything from the breakup of Yugoslavia to the Russian incursion in Chechnya.

I have worked for the wires, photo agencies, magazines, newspapers, even online, with Salon right when they launched. I know the value of news, how it impacts decisions made at the top, how it affects the people living in dire circumstances and how important a job being a journalist is.

I believe in media, and I want to see it survive, which is why, after taking some time to heal from PTSD, I got back in and joined Piano Media, a Slovak company, because it seems to me these guys, or companies like them, are the ones who will help journalism save itself.

The Piano Media Pay Wall System

In 2011 Piano Media developed a system that allowed publishers in Slovakia to bundle their prime content within a payment system and charge for it like cable TV. Subscribing readers paid one low price and received open access to everything within the system in return.

Readers have been receptive. Our system works. Within a very short amount of time, we expanded into Slovenia and then Poland.

We recognized that publishers in bigger markets were equally desperate to find ways to monetize content with technology that was both efficient and secure.

So we purchased the rights to software that could closely track audience engagement, enabling us to offer a proven payment system that could not be defeated by cookie deletion, use of multiple computers, special browser settings or alternative devices. This new system is called Piano Solo, and we will start rolling it out in December 2012.

I hope that our software will change discussions like the one that took place at ASU. No longer will teaching the wrong side of ethics and morality be easier than discussing both sides constructively.

I also hope that these discussions will help us restore the sense of trust we once had for our news when it arrived every morning.