Paywalls debated ... old school style


Feeling a little feisty as I prepare to moderate a panel at the INMA Audience Summit this fall. The topic is paywalls. This session needs to be different and help the industry reach consensus. The panel will be structured like a high school debate so we can hear the arguments, cross-examine, and rebut. As I think back to my high school debate days, it goes something like this:

Representing the affirmative team advocating for paywalls,
“constructive” speech for the affirmative:

Quality news and information is valuable, and a fair price should be charged for its access — regardless of platform. In fact, a case could be made that dynamic, multi-media, digital news is more valuable than print.

Print revenue streams are declining. To remain viable, publishers must find new sources that monetise the investment in content creation. There’s clearly a market with millions paying between US$3 and US$9 a week for digital content in some form — be it broad or vertical content, on stationary or mobile platforms.

Without digital revenue, there are no funds to invest in content. This becomes a vicious cycle resulting in content not worth charging for.

“Cross-examination” by negative team: I’ve heard three specific contrary statements over the past few months. They are:

  1. Digital paywalls only work for publishers like The Wall Street Journal because most of its subscribers pass the cost on to their companies.

  2. Digital advertising would be negatively impacted by resulting traffic reduction.

  3. “Charging for digital content is as dumb as a bag of nails.”

“Rebuttal” by affirmative:

  1. More than three-quarters of WSJ subscriptions are paid for by individual readers — not provided by companies or even reimbursed by employers. The proportion of individuals paying for WSJ content read on mobile digital devices is even higher — closer to nine out of 10 subscribers.

  2. Neither The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times indicate that they have seen measurable declines in traffic as a result of either pay model. In fact, traffic increased 74% since 2010 and digital advertising revenue consistently charts annual gains.

  3. Can’t even figure out what that means — in fact, when I was a kid, my dad used to buy nails in bulk, and they were safely transported home in a bag.

Clearly, the competing high school’s bus is stuck in traffic. Care to help them out here and advocate for the alternate point of view? Or, join us in Chicago on October 4 and be part of the debate!

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