For many years, we’ve warned newspapers that rushed headlong into paywalls that it was a fool’s game. While, yes, their traditional advertising business was struggling, the idea that people would come out of the woodwork to suddenly pay for the online version seemed unlikely to come true, other than — perhaps — for the very largest newspapers in the world, the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal (and even then…). And yet, there remain a religious few who insist that paywalls must be the answer. They’re wrong each and every time, but they can’t stop screaming it. And so they trick foolish newspapers, desperate for some way to stem the revenue slide, into implementing a paywall, and nearly all of those papers discover the same damn thing: the people don’t pay, and thanks to the paywall, the traffic decreases, fewer people link to or share their stories, and the advertisers go away even faster.
The latest to make this discovery: the Toronto Star, which has announced that its paywall is going away. Notably, it was the newspaper’s own advertisers who helped management make this decision:
This decision means that effective April 1 all of our award-winning content will be available free on our website, thestar.com, and across all digital devices, including tablets and smartphones.
We are making this move after extensive input from our readers and our advertisers. Listening to our audiences is critical to the success of our daily newspaper and our digital offerings and we are committed to continually adjusting our digital strategies to provide them with what they want.
We’ve been saying it for years, but it needs to be said again: the news “business” has almost never (there are a very few exceptions) really been the “news” business. It has almost always been the community business. Build a community and then do something to monetize that community to continue serving that community. Most of the time that’s been selling their attention in the form of ads. But, since the rise of the internet, newspapers no longer had quite the monopolistic control on the communities they were serving. That’s the real challenge facing the old newspapers. How to continue to build a community. And yet, rather than look to add value and give the community reasons to stick around, they’ve gone in the other direction: trying to lock out the community, to put up barriers and toll booths that actually diminish the value to the community. A paywalled story is one that people are less likely to share, less likely to discuss, and less likely to visit altogether.
Meanwhile, you see stories about companies like Nextdoor, which are actively building local communities by providing value, and they’re valued at over a billion dollars. Why didn’t newspapers build something like that, rather than focus on putting up a stupid paywall that no one wanted?
The NY Times and the WSJ’s “paywalls” are still really little more than the “emperor’s new paywall.” Both are easy to get around, so they still get people sharing. People pay because they’re “the NY Times” and “the Wall Street Journal,” and some feel a sort of obligation to pay. But they’re hardly paying because of the paywall.
The Toronto Star’s decision to kill off its paywall just reinforces the simple fact that a paywall is a stupid business model in an age of abundant information. The publications that get the most attention these days — places like Buzzfeed and Vox and Vice — don’t talk about paywalls at all, because they know it would be pointless and go against the very concept of everything that they’re building. So it still amazes me that other newspapers have been suckered into believing that a paywall is somehow the answer.