The path forward for premium media is seemingly clear: Put up a paywall.
Digital advertising is a duopoly-dominated mess; any print or broadcast cross-subsidy you might have is declining at one speed or another. Your loyal core digital readers may be only a tiny fraction of that big “monthly uniques” number you put into press releases — but some of them are willing to pay for what you do. Reader revenue is relatively reliable, month to month or year to year, and it’s at the center of media company plans for 2019 and beyond.
But how many paywalls will people really pay to click past? It’s worked for The New York Times; it’s worked for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. But does it work for local newspapers? Metro dailies? Weekly or monthly magazines? Digital native sites?
New York Media is now joining other publishing companies or individual publications that have recently added paywalls, including Bloomberg Media, The Atlantic and the Condé Nast magazines Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Wired.
Subscriptions for the New York Media sites will cost $5 a month or $50 annually. For $70 a year, the company will include a subscription to New York magazine, the onetime weekly that started publishing every other week in 2014.
The pay model, which will allow readers a number of stories free before shutting off access, will go into effect the last week of November, according to the company, which would not specify a date for the change.
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Both New York and Quartz have been real standouts in terms of digital strategy. New York has made content verticals work far better than most legacy media companies and built an agile editorial voice that really works for the web; Quartz has been a leader in mobile-first thinking, platform-specific strategy, and new interfaces for content discovery and consumption. Between the two, I’ve probably read 100 of their stories in the past month. They’re really good!
But are they $50 a year good? Or $100 a year good? To go alongside $120 a year for The Atlantic, $90 a year for The New Yorker, $420 a year for Bloomberg, $60 a year for Slate, $50 a year for Medium, debitum ad infinitum?
To be fair, these paid products offer substantially different value propositions, mixing content, membership, and experience. Quartz is keeping its main output free to read and making an interesting education-and-networking play that makes sense for a business site; New York is building a paywall that can flex open or closed depending on a reader’s predicted propensity to pay; The Atlantic is mostly offering a premium experience while leaving the main site open; The New Yorker and Bloomberg offer relatively traditional meters allowing a set number of articles a month.
But only 16 percent of Americans say they are willing to pay for any online news. If someone’s first digital subscription is to the Times or the Post — how many are willing to pay for a second, or a third, or a fourth news site? Especially if that second or third site costs as much or more than their favorite national daily?
To frame it another way: There’s a segment of the population that can grudgingly be convinced to pay for a news site, out of some mix of consumer reward, civic duty, and peer pressure. But that second or third subscription requires a level of devotion that can be hard to sustain in a digital environment where the links come at you from every direction.
Or allow me a metaphor: Netflix and Amazon have convinced many millions of people to pay for streaming video. But how many of those people think: That’s not enough, I need more? If The New York Times is Netflix and The Washington Post is Amazon (of course) — are these premium national publishers Seeso? Filmstruck? DramaFever?
One complicating factor is that the line between magazines and daily news used to be much more clearly drawn. What you got from a print subscription to The New Yorker or The Atlantic was distinctly different from what you got from the local daily — in timeframe, in editorial approach, in format. But premium magazines’ expansion online has typically been in a newsier direction. Real-time reactions to Mueller news; breaking news from Capitol Hill; columnizing off the latest outrage — these are things can now appear at any of a dozen quality domain names. Wired does great writing about technology, of course — but is it so distinct from what other sites offer that its value remains as clear as it used to be? The Atlantic had a lot of scoops in the last election cycle — but is breaking campaign news something it’s really going to be better at than the Post?
On one hand, it’s unfair to lump this class of premium paid products together — each will succeed or fail on its own merits, both editorial and strategic. A business publication like Quartz will likely have an easier time of it than a more general-interest outlet like New York. But I think it is a fair question to wonder how far down the Paywall Solution can filter through the editorial ecosystem. Local newspapers have already hit this roadblock: While the Times, Post, and Journal build subscriber bases in the millions, most metro dailies have struggled to go far into the five figures. Only two non-national papers — the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe — have more than 100,000 paying digital subscribers. Aggregation theory holds that, in a frictionless marketplace, the Internet tends to aggregate power in the hands of a few large players. That’s benefited Google and Facebook — and, on another scale, the Times and the Post. What about everyone else?
I mused about this idea on Twitter yesterday, and here are some the responses I got — keeping in mind that people who follow me on Twitter are necessarily Very Unusual News Consumers:
I’m sorry to hear about this. I read New York Mag at work; I adore The Atlantic. I already pay for WaPo. I don’t want to pay for every site I frequent online
— Lebanexican (@Lebanexican) November 12, 2018
This. There’s only so much I feel comfortable paying for services that are not essential like food/clothing/shelter is.
I ♥️ news, but if I have to choose between my utility bill and the six subscriptions/recurring donations to news orgs I currently have… 🤷🏽♀️
— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) November 13, 2018
I think about this quite a bit from a consumer perspective. I do NYT but not WaPo, New Yorker but not Wired/Atlantic. ESPN but not The Athletic. If I let it, I could be nickel and dimed to death with subscriptions.
— Dan_Rowinski (@Dan_Rowinski) November 12, 2018
Especially if they all cover the same things/people/topics. There's a lot more value that can be unlocked when outlets selling subscriptions offer something truly unique & different. That's how the subscription model bring a host of new voices to the fore (IMO).
— Terrell Johnson (@terrellwrites) November 12, 2018
Icksnay on the aywall-pay. Will simply read other content sources — sorry NYM.
— Al Poochini (@alpoochini) November 13, 2018
I get to read ten articles a month on various news sites. Sometimes only one or two articles per month before I'm shut down. I'm not going to pay for news, but it does mean I don't get to check the primary source when I'm reading commentary about something.
— Missus Bennet (@poornerves) November 12, 2018
You can't subscribe to everything. I appreciate @NewYorker's version. There are occasional "must read" stories there that someone I follow links but not enough for me to replace one of my newspaper subscriptions when choosing what to buy.
— Jane (@Poeia) November 12, 2018
Or….it makes it harder for everyday people to discover the great words from the honkers of our time, I wouldn’t have read Ta-Nehisi Coates “Reperations” essay of a paywall had stopped me, or much Ta Nehisi at ALL. Pros and cons, happy to see some people getting some pay for wrk
— Elliott Troy (@AngloGyptian) November 12, 2018
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, NYT, Economist, New Yorker, The Athletic, Spotify. I like Slate and NY Mag and VF but at a certain point it's enough. Rather go without than pay for more
— Daniel O (@DanOfromNYC) November 12, 2018
exactly. for me it just means i don't read the stories. they should just use ads to pay the bills. or i just reset my browser if I really feel like reading it
— The Count (@Alan87374847) November 12, 2018
Hmmm… I read a ton of content from all of these sources. But I only have subscriptions to @newyorker and @TheAtlantic. I have just been helping myself to free NYMag copy, just because I could. I fully expect to pay up now!
— Chris Daly (@profdaly) November 12, 2018
I'm happy to pay for WaPo and 7 other newspapers (not including the NYT) as well as The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I want to support the sites I rely upon. But I realize I may not be typical.
— Jeri Dansky (@JeriDansky) November 13, 2018