Paywalls and rebates

Last month, my daily newspaper, The News & Observer of Raleigh, launched what it calls N&O Plus. Most people, however, call it a paywall.

The N&O is among more than 400 U.S. newspapers that charge for online content. As a faithful subscriber to the print edition, I can access its digital offerings as before.

The sharp decline of print advertising has led to cuts in staff and resources at newspapers across the United States; the slow rise of digital advertising on news sites is insufficient to make up for that lost revenue. That’s why some news organizations are turning to paywalls.

I’m torn on this issue. Like anyone, I like getting goods and services at the lowest possible cost. I don’t want to pay for something that was free for many years.

But I know that high-quality journalism is expensive to produce, and I am willing to pay to get it. That’s why I subscribe to the N&O and contribute to WUNC-FM, among other expenditures in my media budget.

As my friend and former colleague John Robinson suggested in a blog post last month, newspapers need to offer unique, engaging content to justify charging readers for access to their sites. I’d add that the stories, slideshows and other material behind paywalls need to be well-edited. Readers notice, after all.

To that end, I propose a rebate program that would allow readers to get money back for various editing glitches. Consider it to be a modest proposal.

For purposes of illustration, I’ll use N&O Plus. The digital subscription costs $70 a year. Under the rebate plan, subscribers would get refunds at the end of each year like so:

  • Picayune style error (such as canceled vs. cancelled): 1 cent
  • Punctuation error: 25 cents
  • Repeated or dropped word: 25 cents
  • Redundancy, cliche or garble: 25 cents
  • Routine spelling error: 50 cents
  • Corporate/military/governmental jargon: $1
  • Missing first reference to a source: $2
  • Misleading chart or map: $3
  • Misspelled proper name: $4
  • Fact error: $5
  • Libel, fabrication or plagiarism: full refund

So how can news sites avoid paying these rebates? Hire more copy editors, and let them do their work.



  1. Sure, but let’s make this a two-way street. Since you’re asking for content delivery that is 100% perfect, how about some à la carte pricing for situations that could potentially increase the cost of digital publishing?
    Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
    ● Deprecation Foul: complaining that the website won’t work with Internet Explorer 6.0 – $5
    ● Major Deprecation Foul: grumbling about design issues with IE6 or 7 on an illegal version of Windows 2000 or XP – $10
    ● Blockhead Obstruction: lamenting login failures to commenting because their popup blocker is misconfigured – $7.50
    ● Comment Conundrum: kvetching logins such as ‘r3dh0tp0ker’ or ‘b00bn00b’ are getting blocked by the anti-spam system – $10
    ● Subscriber Senility: for occasions where the user forgets their username and/or password – $5 for each, $7.50 for both
    ● Textimus Maximus: moaning about the layout after maximizing the font/view/zoom to 750% or the original size – $2.50
    ● Bandwith Bellyacher: kvetching that pages are slow to load, after opening 25 concurrent browser tabs – $3.99
    ● Total Aggregation: attempts at getting full content free through channels such as Google Currents, Flipboard &/or Pulse – $1.50
    ● Mobile Madness: commiserating about limited content or slow loads on a 3g, single core, not-so-smartphone – $0.25
    ● Sharing, Not Caring: kicking up a fuss after they’re found to be sharing credentials with friends & neighbors – $70.00
    Granted, the above problems are common to any Software-as-a-Service enterprise, but at least in the case of the N&O the annual costs for the majority of subscribers would remain constant at $70 as the operational costs introduced by such instances are paid for by the above pricing scheme.
    The other upside being is that this would leave more funds for more copy editors as suggested in the above post.

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