The rise of the digital age brought with it a seismic shift in the manner news is produced, distributed, and consumed. Over the last two decades, print news has steadily declined, besieged by the costs of printing and the convenience of digital platforms. In response to these new dynamics, many news organizations – including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal – have instituted paywalls as a means to generate revenue and sustain quality journalism.

But as journalism unswervingly moves behind the paywalls, it invariably clashes with a long-established principle of the internet – the concept of free access to information. The question then rises: how do news organizations strike a balance between delivering quality journalism and ensuring accessibility through paywalls?

Firstly, let’s understand what a paywall is. Essentially, it is a method of restricting access to content via a paid subscription. There are different types of paywalls such as hard paywalls that allow no free content, soft paywalls that offer some measure of free content, and metered paywalls that give access to a limited amount of free content per month.

Paywalls have been a means for news providers to offset the significant decline in advertising revenue due to the rise of digital platforms like Facebook and Google. According to a 2020 report by Pew Research Center, estimated revenue for the U.S. news industry in 2018 from digital advertising was roughly $15 billion, less than a third of what it was from traditional advertising in 2006 ($49 billion).

While paywalls have sustained many a news outlet financially, critics argue that they prevent large portions of the public from accessing critical information. “Information inequality” refers to this growing disparity, and critics warn of gravitating towards a society where only those who can afford to pay are informed.

However, news media proponents of paywalls argue that fundamentally, you get what you pay for. Just as one wouldn’t expect free food at a restaurant or free clothes at a store, so professional journalism – the in-depth reports, investigative stories, foreign reporting – costs money to produce. Paywalls, they say, are the price tags for quality, unbiased, and comprehensive journalism – values that hold democracy together.

The challenge then lies in balancing these two tenets: maintaining quality journalism and ensuring it isn’t confined to an ‘information elite.’ And on this, news organizations have been getting innovative.

First on the list is the “Freemium Model.” Publications like The New Yorker, The Economist, and Bloomberg Businessweek allow readers to access a certain number of articles for free, with premium content reserved for subscribers.

Second is the “Metered Model,” such as what The New York Times and Financial Times use. Here, readers can access a specific number of articles each month for free. Once they cross that limit, they hit the paywall.

Third is the “Membership Model,” where readers are encouraged to support the publication, not merely subscribe. The Guardian in the UK has adopted this route, arguing that “reader contribution is future-proofing The Guardian in an uncertain world.”

Finally, we have experimentation with microtransactions. Inspired by the gaming industry, Winnipeg Free Press in Canada introduced a pay-per-article program. Readers can access individual articles for a small fee without subscribing.

Mining reader data to understand which model works best, collaborations between news organizations to offer bundled subscriptions, and focusing on reader loyalty has been the keys to making paywalls work. Paywalls need not be seen as barriers to accessibility but rather avenues to support quality journalism.

Even Google recognized the tension between sustainable journalism and easy access to news. In 2017, the tech titan changed its “First Click Free” policy and now allows publishers the freedom to determine how many free articles they want to provide to Google Search users.

Nonetheless, as paywalls persist and possibly strengthen, news providers should consistently seek ways to level the playing field – from offering discounted subscriptions to those who cannot afford full prices, giving deals with schools and universities, to partnering with public libraries for free access.

The future of journalism faces exciting and challenging times. Quality journalism, underpinned by veracity and fairness, remains essential in our societies. Paywalls, in principle and practice, need to cultivate not just revenues, but readers, too. Because, ultimately, a robust democratic society depends on informed citizens. And for that, access to quality journalism must always remain accessible.

– “Advertising revenue in the U.S. 2006-2018.” Pew Research Center. September 2019.
– “Rethinking how to speak with the digital news consumer.” New York Times. April 2018.
– “Google updates policy for news paywalls.” Google. October 2017.
– “News use across social media platforms 2018.” Pew Research Center. September 2018.