By now, it has become increasingly clear that 2010 is in fact, as the British weekly Economist put it, the year of the paywall. The Times of London and the Sunday Times are just weeks away from offering their online content for a fee and recently, the New York Times announced its finalized paywall plans and an official launch date.
This has prompted Vanity Fair.com's and Newser's, Michael Wolff, to wonder what will happen to the news world when most people no longer get their sources from established sources.
Wolff shies away from the economics of paid online content's viability and delves deep into the transformations that a drop in readership might bring for newspapers behind paywalls.
Paid Content has reported that the Times counts on losing "plenty" of readers when it launches its paywall in June, and the Sunday Times editor John Witherow has announced that he expects a drop-off of over 90 percent. Other estimates by Enders put the audience that is willing to pay as 2 to 5 percent of readers.
Wolff estimates that the future of the NYT and the Times of London will be similar to the Wall Street Journal's. For him, the WSJ's early paywall contributed to a loss of advertisers, readers, prestige, and ultimately, its sale to Rupert Murdoch.
Newspapers like the Times and the NYT could become "shadows of their former selves" by departing the mass market, Wolff concludes. Both newspapers could lose their mass readership and start reaching a very limited number of readers. As a result, The Times of London may have to devote itself to an older and loyal readership once again. Wolff notes that ironically, Murdoch, "the king of low-brow and bishop of middle-market," may have to position his brand as a "true up-market, quality publishers."
As with many pieces that have been written about the paywall that emphasize the uncertainty behind the new business model, Wolff speculates that a true revolution may be in the works for all of those 50 million readers that are "curious but not-so-curious-as-to-pay-for-it."
As for Wolff, could perhaps those readers, who are turned off by paywalls, flock to universal paywall-free online newspapers, like Guardian? A revolution could be coming, as Wolff says.
James Murdoch claims competitors will follow in News International's decisions to charge for online content. But, if they do not, competitors have a chance to capitalize on the readers unwilling to pay with free online news.