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The Anatomy of an Online News Paywall

I once had a professor in media effects theory who would incorporate the full read of the “Digital News Report” into the curriculum of all his classes. It is a roughly 150-page long report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism disclosing the findings of an annual, international study on news consumption.

Background

Amid the booming upsurge of the internet during the 1990s, legacy newspaper companies, like companies in many other industries, rushed to provide their services in this new connected space. The vast majority of them did so by providing free access to their content, thus primarily relying on an advertising revenue model. This remained the online strategy for the plurality of newspapers up until the 2008 financial crisis — the breaking point where most newspapers realized they needed to re-think their business model in the online space.

The paywall landscape

By 2013, Digital Content Next, an association counting titles such as The New York Times, The Financial Times and The Guardian reported that 95% of their newspaper and magazine members were having a paid subscription strategy. In realizing such strategies, they, alongside publishers all over the world, have been setting up digital constraints, commonly known as paywalls, requesting a payment before providing access to their content. The format of those paywalls generally fall into two categories — the hard and the soft paywall — but new creative models are starting to emerge as publishers are looking to improve their conversion rates.

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The common paywall concept as implemented on desktop by Swedish local daily Västerbottens-Kuriren. As an unregistered user clicks on any locked news article, they are routed to the rightmost image, faced by the article title, image, and the beginning of the body text, followed by an offer to become a subscriber.

The hard paywall

The hard model requires users to have a paid subscription before accessing any content. It has been found to work the best for brands having a strong connection to their readership and who delivers content focused on their key readers’ needs, e. g., finance. British daily The Times is currently using this model and it has been key in the digital success of The Wall Street Journal, who successfully implemented it from 1996 until 2017.

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A hard paywall as implemented on desktop by The Times. Clicking on any article while in a logged-out state triggers the paywall constraint seen here.

The soft paywall

The soft paywall allows readers to access free content within certain boundaries. The benefit of this model is that unregistered readers can spend more time in the service, generating more traffic leading to increased digital advertising revenue. This model adds variables to be tweaked by publishers as to the amount and kind of content that is free to access, also known as paywall porosity. Two of the more popular soft paywall models are the metered model and the freemium model, also known as the noble model.

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A metered paywall as implemented on desktop by The New York Times during spring 2019. The bottom overlay informs the user of how many articles they have left on their free access meter.
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The freemium model as implemented by British daily The Telegraph, where locked content leading to a paywall constraint is denoted with a “PREMIUM”-tag.

The source of irritation

The reception of these models has been rather frigid, as users seem to generate a great deal of irritation while dealing with them. In terms of the source of that irritation, it could be found by looking at the first of the ten heuristics of user interface design by Jakob Nielsen. It posits that ”The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time”.

(Re)defining a paywall

In an attempt to find common ground between a group of users and the news companies, I aimed the spotlight towards a younger demographic, exploring how 20 to 30-year-olds experience the landscape of online news as it has become augmented with different takes of the above-mentioned pay models. In short, the main sentiment expressed by the participants can be summarized as a quote by Celeste LeCompte in “Predictions for journalism 2019” for Nieman Lab:

“Most people don’t consume news because they want to be more informed about the news; they want to be informed about the news that they’re likely to talk about”.

The participants’ testimonials generally painted a picture of shallow news consumption, sometimes non-existent, with low willingness to pay for content. This is in line with previous research findings on the demographic and, quite obviously, it is in direct conflict with the interests of the news companies. In an attempt to accommodate this conflict of interests, a design proposition was generated that, from the perspective of the news publishers, holds three critical steps in its design:

Step 1: Maximize the incentives to register an account

Most online news services use an “open” design, displaying all news items and then limiting the access of them depending on the current payment plan. Contrary to that, this concept attempts to generate value early on in the interaction process by limiting that openness, instead opting for early user registration for a more binary design, similar to that of Netflix or Spotify — you either have it, or you don’t.

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The landing page of the onboarding concept for desktop generated in the design process. The left tab allows for access to article previews and emergency information regardless of the user being logged in. The right tab focuses on the registration process, requesting the user to log in or creating an account.
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Upon clicking the button to register, the available payment plans are displayed. While still communicating the monthly subscription offerings here, there is a visual focus on the free account version, opting for early registration.

Step 2: Convert registered users to paying subscribers

As users have registered their account, the next step is to draw their attention to more sustainable revenue streams. Although it might be the most steady model, due to the wide-spread low willingness to pay for news, a subscription model doesn’t appeal to all users here. Therefore the concept offers alternative payment options, such as micro-transactions and exchanging content for personal information.

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The news feed as seen by a logged-in user. This concept utilizes both a freemium and a metered model. Premium content is denoted with a “Premium”-tag, and the article meter is always visible in the top right of the header.
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The modal being prompted once a user clicks on a premium content once the meter has run out. The user is offered to unlock all articles for 24h for a static fee, unlock the single article with a micro-transaction, share some arbitrary personal information, or sign a subscription plan.

Step 3: Retain paying subscribers

The final step is to keep the users’ subscriptions active. By this point, the user has registered an account and opted for the most sustainable payment plan as seen from the news companies — a subscription.

Takeaways

A major drawback of the concept is that it limits the preview of content, much like the hard paywall effect. In case the user has no thought of registering an account, the landing page leaves much to be desired in terms of news value.

Closing remarks

The challenge of user acquisition and retention of online news readership is complex. There is no silver-bullet as shown by the proceedings of the International News Media Association’s Media Subscriptions Summit, where case studies of 25 individual publishers delivered 25 unique takes on pay models.

“There is — and probably always will be — a surplus of free content. But that’s like saying there’s a surplus of free food in the dumpster behind the alley. Some of it may be perfectly good, but most of us would rather pay for something more reliable and convenient if we’re able. And many people will pay a lot for something superior.”

The quote discloses an apt challenge for future research — identifying that “something superior“. What content is worth paying for, and by whom?

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