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Tech and Journalism | Sunday, May 23rd, 2010, 4:58 pm

Why not all pay walls are evil

In today’s NY Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan has an interesting column that compares the rise of an elite class of Web apps to the white flight from cities to the suburbs. Along the way she mentions Honolulu Civil Beat and The Times of London’s new pay wall.

Behind pay walls … production values surge. Cool software greets the paying lady and gentleman; they get concierge service, perks. Web stations with entrance fees are more like boutiques than bazaars.

The very idea of a pay wall is not bad in and of itself. It’s the visions (or, rather, lack thereof) of publishers who think a pay wall is nothing more than making people pay to read articles online. In reality, a pay wall is a way to enrich the experience of a user, but it has to be done right.

When you buy a paper at the stand — and yes, I know I’m the only person who still does that — you’re really paying for the production values that went into making the paper, not the content itself. It costs a ton of money to design the paper, plate the pages, run the press, drive the paper to the newsstand or your house. But in return for your $2 (or $6, as it would be for my Sunday edition of The Times) you get a package that contains much more than news. For many papers in includes coupons, comics, classifieds, weather, obituaries and tinder for those of us who still heat with wood stoves.

Honolulu Civil Beat hopes to gain subscribers to its (let’s face it, exorbitantly priced) site by offering an experience that includes much more than articles. And it might just succeed because it recognizes the unfortunate truth that news isn’t valued as much by the consumer as we journalists would like to think it is.

The exclusivity that might drive a customer to pay for a website is more than just putting a higher price on something. It’s providing a service you can’t get from someplace else. If a news org is considering a pay wall, it also must consider the extra resources it must put in to make the site appealing. No longer, as Heffernan points out, will sloppy design suffice. Nor will articles that have been cut and paste from the print edition, nor will sloppy journalism, for that matter. To get someone to pay for a news site, there must be a package presented that has the same or greater value added than a print edition of the paper.

If you’re willing to invest those resources, then a pay wall might be for you. Else, keep your crappy news site free and go find a new business model.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

One Response to “Why not all pay walls are evil”

  1. It’s like I read your mind on the phone today — exactly like you said, you can’t just shovel print product online and expect people to pay fort that, you need to provide an added service.

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