So publishers, upset over dramatically declining ad revenue, have decided to dive back into a largely failed practice of locking up online content behind paywalls to try and siphon some extra money out of their audience. How is the audience responding to these efforts, you might ask? Here’s one way. Breakthe paywall.com is a simple browser plugin that deletes cookies from news websites. This completely undermines the ability of publishers to use programs which allow a limited number of free articles to be read before striking the paywall. Without the cookies, the websites have no way of tracking how many times, or how many articles a reader has accessed. Why isn’t this illegal, you may ask? Well, all the program does is delete cookies. Anyone with even a modest amount of internet experience can do that on their own with no problem. Still, I’m sure publishers will have something to say about this at some point.
Last week, I wrote a little about the limited financial success most publishers have found online. One of my points was that the holy grail of newspaper website paywalls, the Wall Street Journal, was more a result of an audience with ready cash and no desire to circumvent their paywall. Here’ what I said:
Well, the Wall Street Journal makes money online, you say. That’s true, but it’s with very specialized information targeted to a key demographic, that being very well-off people who have tons of discretionary income. That income guarantees that they will take the path of least resistance, i.e. paying for a subscription to the Journal online, rather than find an end-around to their soft paywall to get the stuff for free. The Journal is only making the money it is because there audience can afford to pay for it and have no reason to circumvent that. If they did, you can bet they would, and the Journal’s online revenue would plummet accordingly.
Things like Break the Paywall.com support my assertion that people simply won’t pay for something they don’t really want to, no matter how difficult or locked down publishers try to make their content. And that’s a losing game in and of itself. The more publishers sequester their stuff online away from the open internet to support subscription models and paywalls, the less exposure they get, and ultimately, far fewer eyeballs to potentially entice some paying customers. And that says nothing about declining traffic and how that will impact online ad revenue.
So what’s a publisher to do? How about the age-old practice of actually providing a product people will willingly pay for? It’s a novel suggestion, I know, but taking the audience for granted has become commonplace in the industry. Things like this show pretty clearly that the audience may accept that to a point, but when it begins to hit their wallet, they either find an end-around or move on to somewhere else to get their information. So much for 2010 being the year of the paywall.