Gift Articles

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I’d like to give you a gift. It is an article I just read that I liked and think you will like. About the only way I can do that these days is to cut out the article and send it to you. But I can only do that with one person.

Why? Paywalls on digital content. These often prevent non-subscribers from reading content, or only a very small number in a month. Often, you have to register at the website, subjecting you to emails from that site. For many, it is not worth it, and that article I want to share with you may end up unread.

I was so happy when the New York Times instituted a policy for its digital subscribers of permitting them to “gift” ten articles each month. I often find good things to share that I like to post on one of the social media pages I curate. Being able to do this is and not hear back, I couldn’t open it because of the paywall makes me feel better about my subscription to the NY Times.

I curate social media accounts related to books and to higher education. For each, I tend to post 3-5 articles a day selected from different media. Sometimes I can’t access a good article because of a paywall and other times, I can access an article because I subscribe to the publication but if I share it with non-subscribers, they are subject to the paywall. Result: I limit the number of paywalled articles I share.

But I don’t like it as a subscriber and I’d like (and have written) publications to which I subscribe to adopt a policy like that of the NY Times. Here’s what I think they ought to consider:

  • It is an extra subscriber benefit that gives me one more reason to keep subscribing.
  • Subscription prices are rising rapidly. If I have to cut my subscriptions, I will retain the ones that offer me the most perceived benefit.
  • The fear, I realize, is that “gift” content will discourage subscriptions. What is not considered is that gift content will help retain subscribers. From the development world, it is far easier to retain a subscriber than to get a new one.
  • Shared content that people can actually read demonstrates the worth of the publication. For example, I subscribed to The Atlantic because of online articles I read before they instituted their paywall policy.
  • Allowing “gift” articles also expands traffic to a publication’s website–as important a metric as subscribers for advertisers. When I share an article on my Facebook page, I potentially share that article with nearly 59,000 followers, a significant “reach.” In turn, they appreciate the gift and increase their engagement–and some may subscribe.
  • Magazines often allow you to give a year “gift subscription” to expand their subscriber base. Why not use gift articles to expand subscriber base?

I suspect at worst, this idea wouldn’t cost publications anything, and may have the upsides I’ve proposed. But I suspect, this may be a quixotic quest unless there was a mass subscriber movement. The publications I’ve written just tell me what I already know, which feels condescending. None made me feel they actually valued me as a subscriber and were interested in building the relationship between us. The only time most really seem to care is when I drop a subscription. Then they’ll often offer a new one for less than half what I was paying, usually via a computer generated mailing. Maybe some day they will recognize the power of a gift and the multiplier effect it can have with subscribers.

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?