Student guest post: The pros and cons of paywalls

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Rebecca Seawell is a senior international studies major and journalism minor. Other than working as assistant editor at reesenews.org, she enjoys globetrotting and springtime in Chapel Hill.

Online paywalls have always been controversial among readers and journalists in the industry. The recent implementation of The New York Times’ online paywall has attracted both skepticism and criticism from the blogosphere. While some news organizations, such as the The Augusta Chronicle, experienced relative success or even increased traffic after implementing a paywall, others suffered consequences such as losing readership. So what will this mean for the Times?

Some bloggers argue that the secret behind the Chronicle’s success was the use of a metered paywall. Through a metered paywall, readers can access a limited number of articles in an established time period before having to subscribe.

The NYTImes.com paywall, which launched March 28, limits readers to 20 articles per month (although the online community has already discovered several ways to get around this).

Earlier this week, Mashable released an analysis of two weeks of the new paywall. The data showed that the number of unique visitors to the site dropped between 5 and 10 percent after the paywall began. Page views also reflected a drop in traffic, the lowest being on the last day of the month.

While there is not enough data to have a conclusive analysis of how the paywall will ultimately affect online readership of the Times, reactions have been mixed. Some readers have complained about having to pay; others have said that they don’t mind paying for the quality journalism the news organization has to offer.

Personally, I don’t completely agree with either side in the paywall debate. Though I value the quality of journalism that the Times offers, I’m among those readers that may end up at The Washington Post or other top-notch news organizations, where I can get my news without being a subscriber.

So are paywalls weeding out the most dedicated readers and discouraging the rest? While having a metered paywall creates an opportunity for people to become loyal readers (rather than blocking access completely for non-subscribers), it creates a divide between casual and consistent readers.

That being said, if all news organizations decided to follow the Times’ lead and implement online paywalls, I would almost certainly choose to subscribe to the Times rather than elsewhere. Who knows? Maybe one day paywalls will be the norm.

One example where I feel paywalls work well is in sports coverage. Websites like Rivals.com and Scout.com have extra, premium scouting information available only to people who are willing to pay for it. In this type of situation, these organizations have access to information that usually isn’t available elsewhere. This exclusivity, combined with a high density of sports fanatics, creates a prime opportunity for a paywall.

As for the Times, only time will tell whether their model is successful. As one of the leading news organizations, it has the ability to lead the industry by example. Its success, or failure, could lead to the metered paywall system being adapted by others. What will determine the outcome will be whether or not people find their content worth the money.