Paywalls

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Image by Ron Mader, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Remember when the internet was free? I still remember the incredible fascination of discovering the world at my fingertips the first time I got on the internet and found the first primitive Yahoo search engine (before the days of Google and Bing).

There is still an amazing amount of that out there. But increasingly, if you are like me, you’ve run into walls. Paywalls.

The problem? Many content providers from The New York Times to The New Yorker have put up paywalls. Paywalls mean you must be a subscriber to see the content, or any content beyond a limited number of articles per month. Some, at least, like The New York Times, have actually found this a successful strategy.

I understand. Print circulation of many of these content providers is dropping and hardly anyone has figured out how to create a good advertising revenue stream on digital media, particularly with ad blockers (more recently sites have taken to asking you to pause your ad blocker on their site as a partial remedy). Bottom line is that writers and others who make these content outlets possible have to be paid or they will be out of business. The Atlantic, one of the few media outlets without a paywall has a good article explaining how all this works. [In a counter-intuitive move, I decided to subscribe to them because they don’t have a paywall, and I really appreciate many of their writers and articles.]

I also decided to subscribe to one major news outlet with a paywall. I have print subscriptions to a couple of periodicals that allow me access through their online paywalls because I subscribe. But here’s my problem. I’m at my limit of subscriptions. And I probably encounter paywalls on a dozen or more sites that I access each week. Often, I’m referred there via a newsletter only to find either that I cannot access the content, or that I need to use up my allotment of free articles to do so. Often I am at these sites because I curate a Facebook page on books. Truth is, although I do it sometimes, I hate to post material with a paywall for those on my page.

NiemanLab ran an article about this problem and they have come up with a solution that I have wondered about for some time. Perhaps you can guess what it is if you subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime. Create an umbrella subscription that will give access to a number of periodicals and news outlets. By using cookies and some type of user ID, it would seem to be easy to track usage and allocate revenues accordingly.

For the big outlets that have been going it on their own successfully, this might not be attractive. But for smaller content providers that many might decide to pass up, I could see the benefit in enhancing their revenue stream.

In Christian circles, it was once common to use song lyrics at meetings and retreats, and knowingly or not, routinely violate copyright restrictions and rob artists of earnings on their artistic work. In 1988, Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. was formed. Churches and ministries could purchase an annual license, the fee for which was based on group size, and gave access for noncommercial use to a wide range of music and lyrics. Now, over 250,000 subscribe, enough that their founder, Howard Rachinski, was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2016, a sign of the impact this has had for musicians and songwriters.

A blanket periodical subscription could be offered as a tier of plans based on usage. I think a marketing/usage study might be needed to determine these but I suspect offering multiple price points based on usage patterns would be attractive to many who value the content, recognize the need to these outlets to have revenue, but can’t afford a dozen subscriptions (or don’t want to keep track of that many usernames and passwords). People pay $120 a year for Prime, around $170 a year for Netflix, depending on the plan, $180 a year for the basic Audible plan, and often $400 a year or more for premium cable or other plans, when at one time they got their TV for free, and audiobooks at the library. Might this be a good way to pay for digital print media that we care about?

What do you think of such an idea? How much per month or per year would you pay for a subscription?