To paywall or not to paywall? That seems to be the most prominent question in the sphere online news publishing these days. In the discussions on the topic, the lines appear to be clearly drawn: on the one side are newspapers such as the New York Times or the Financial Times, which charge for their online content either immediately or after accessing a certain number of articles. On the other side are papers such as the Guardian, which believe that an “open” approach, more akin to the nature of the Internet, will eventually yield solid revenue.
The drawback of this way of thinking about digital publishing is that it may put too much emphasis on the question of paywall, whereas a different angle could be more helpful. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram makes this point in a recent article, arguing that rather than defining the relationship with their readers through money, newspapers should focus on the relationship they have with their readers. When developed more fully, this relationship would then form the basis that could be monetised.
What is important in creating and maintaining such relationships is the readers’ closer involvement in the papers’ functions, Ingram argues, citing comment moderation by readers and real-world events that active online community members would be invited to as examples.
This would allow readers to see themselves part of a club that has certain benefits for its members – a far more attractive deal than most paywall models, even if it would (ideally) lead to the same outcome: the reader paying for a service. The difference is, Ingram says, that in this model readers would feel more inclined to part from their money if they saw the transaction as a way of paying for membership benefits, and not only for access to online news content.
Focusing on nurturing loyal and interactive readership is something more and more news sites are looking into, and rightly so. Granted, Ingram’s piece includes few concrete suggestions on how to actually monetise this readership (and was lampooned for this by David Carr). But as revenue from online advertising does not come even close to compensating the drop in print advertising money, boosting online traffic alone is not the answer.
Thus concentrating on delivering benefits instead of immediately raising the fence between the reader and content could eventually lead to viable business solutions. This seems to be what the Guardian is betting on. Its recent “Open Weekend” was a concrete example of closer involvement with its readers, and according to Charlie Beckett, this relationship might eventually turn the “Guardian reader” into a “Guardian member”. Ideally, a Guardian member would not only sign up for the paper or the app (the paper’s iPad app is already paid-for), but would also contribute to content creation. Thus the Guardian seems to hope that some readers are willing to give not only money, but also their time, in support of their favoured newspaper.