2010 was the year of the paywall.
Trying to figure out how to transit newspapers' print businesses to the digital world, one of the big questions was: is charging online the way to go?
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was one of those to lead the way in charging for online content, putting the UK Times and Sunday Times behind a paywall in July 2010.
Before the News Corp group, the German publisher Alex Springer began charging for online access with some of its newspapers.
It was actually a path already chosen by some niche publications, which provided (and still provide) specialized content, like financial and business news.
Within financial news publications, amongst the first ones to charge for content were the Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch originally pointed as a model to follow, and the Economist, which introduced between the end of 2009 and beginning 2010 a paywall for the print-edition content on its website.
It has to be noted however that financial news is an area in which subscribers might be more willing to pay for online.
Right now there is not a definitive answer to whether paywalls are the way to go or not, but for sure it is a path that many are following, the New York Times, whose paywall went up after months of anticipation on March, being the last most awaited one.
Paywall supporters say news is valuable and therefore should not be free. In addition to this, as readers pay for the print edition, why should they have the same - and even more due to multimedia tools, actually - content for free online?
Also, the chief cause for the move towards paywalls was a steep drop in online advertising, said the Economist.
"Between the first quarter of 2003, when the Newspaper Association of America began tracking it, and the second quarter of 2007, online ad revenue consistently grew by more than 20% a year. Then it wobbled, and began to fall sharply. In the third quarter of 2009 American newspapers earned 17% less from online advertising than they had done a year earlier", the article explained.
Others have a more sceptical approach towards paywalls, as they say that as news is available everywhere thanks to the Internet, newspapers should ask for money only when they sell content with a very high additional value, like financial news coverage.
The main obstacle is, of course, persuading people to pay for something they are used to getting for free.
The effects on the news consumption side also differ: some papers experienced a drop in unique user visits, as happened to the UK Times, while others had good results, as in the case of the Augusta Chronicle.
Paywalls aren't only a path many are following, but also it is a path that unites national big titles and local and smaller ones.
As it was recently reported, 46 percent of newspapers with circulation under 25,000 said that they have already implemented a paywall. Of papers with a circulation over 25,000, only 24 percent said the same.
The debate goes on also regarding which model to implement, whether a full or a metered one. Financial Times chose the metered model, letting web users view a certain number of articles each month before asking them for money. The New York Times did the same.
Murdoch opted instead for the impenetrable one.
The Wall Street Journal is a hybrid, as despite the paywall, some articles still remain free to access.
How to pay for quality journalism in a digital world is still a topical issue. On Monday 9 May City University organised a talk about the subject, as BMJ Blog reported.
Together with Geordie Grieg, editor of the Evening Standard and Katie Vanneck-Smith, chief marketing officer at News International, Dan Sabbagh, media editor of the Guardian, also attended the debate.
Sabbagh explained that the paper, which doesn't have a paywall, is doing well with its website as well as online is still an area of growth and potential expansion. The site is attracting many more readers than the print copy - the article reported him saying - and this number is ever increasing, having reach recently the highest number of visitors in one day, 4.5 million, on the day of Osama Bin Laden's death.
Having a paywall, in addition to risk to cause a drop in users' visits, could also cut journalists out of the conversation. "The Guardian wants to be a content aggregator, and pull together lots of good information online, whereas the Times and Sunday Times journalists are enclosed behind access controls", he said.
Vanneck-Smith argued - the article continued - that having lost a part of their audience is counterbalanced now by having a more engaged audience. She said their readers spend now more time on the site, clicking through more often and commenting more. Plus, she said, their online subscriptions are still growing whereas their print subscriptions are down by 12%.
The last to announce the introduction of a paywall was the Montreal Gazette, which implemented a metered system on May 25.
"Users of montrealgazette.com will receive 20 free views of "premium content" each month - including stories, columns and features by Gazette and Postmedia News writers, as well as photo galleries and videos. Once users reach that threshold, they will be asked to pay for access", the site announced. Those who currently pay for a subscription to the printed Gazette will have free access to the site.
"A great deal has been written about the economics of publishing newspapers in 2011. The "old" model - selling newsprint products very cheaply to readers and selling the audience to advertisers for the majority of income - is increasingly challenged. Simply transferring advertisers from print to online may not work for all. To continue our investment in the quality and depth of our award-winning journalism and offer you the features and functions you want from our website, we believe we have to find new sources of revenue", the paper concluded.