Last week Jason Abbruzzese wrote on Mashable about how he believes the “free” phase of the internet is coming to a close and it’s time for people to start opening their wallets. As an inciting incident for this new wave he cites the recent news Entertainment Weekly is introducing a metered paywall which will allow people to access only so many articles (the number changes depending on where they’re coming from) each month. As with all such hybrid models, the idea is that if you offer readers a taste they’ll come to see your outlet as important and be more than happy to shell out for even more.

While he doesn’t mention it, the same argument is happening in the music world, where some record labels are pressuring Spotify to either do away with or more strictly curtail free (albeit ad-supported) access levels in favor of one that does more to encourage – nay force – people into a “Premium” membership that is more lucrative for the labels. Spotify’s rebuttal is that the free, ad-supported level (something that won’t be part of Apple’s rumored streaming service) may generate just 10% of revenue but it’s how people come to the service and accounts for the vast majority of its user base.

The idea that media should erect paywalls around their content, as opposed to letting the freeloading masses get away with not giving them money, is as old as the internet itself, or close enough at least. But it’s not the hippie audience that’s to blame, it’s a combination of online advertising models and media that has been in a race to the bottom for the last 15 years on multiple fronts.


First, online advertising: Back in the early days online ads were sold by media companies as add-ons to print buys, not given a value in their own right. And the realization that an ads effectiveness could be finitely quantified based on audience interaction meant advertisers weren’t willing to pay for “awareness,” just for actual click-throughs or other actions. Finally, publishers added as many pages to their sites as possible in an effort to increase available inventory, further driving down the value of each individual ad. So, in short, if publishers aren’t getting the revenue from advertising they used to they largely themselves to blame for, at every available opportunity, making the choice that would hurt them the most in the long term. Advertising has always been the core revenue source, not subscription or individual issue sales, so to now think that equation will flip is to ignore a hundred years of media history.

Second – and here’s the real kicker and why a paywall isn’t a solution in and of itself – every publisher is now writing about the same 12 things each day, leading to a monoculture where nothing unique has the chance to thrive. Everyone’s writing about “the dress,” the latest quote from The Rock’s press junket or so on. But the crux of the paywall argument is that there’s something unique behind the wall. People aren’t going to pay for access to someone reporting on who Katy Perry is feuding with on Twitter because there are 327 sites doing the same thing. But they will – or at least there’s a better chance they will – pay for something no one else is doing.

But at the same time they want to erect a paywall, sites and publications are ditching seasoned, talented writers, reporters and producers in favor of cheaper “content producers” who can churn out posts quickly in order to, again, create more ad inventory.

Let’s think about this from a retail standpoint: I know I can get toothpaste from any of a two dozen stores within a few mile radius of my driveway. So when I’m looking for toothpaste, something about which I have no particular brand loyalty, it comes down to some combination of price and convenience. The closest to free and the closest to where I am when I need toothpaste will usually win. But I know there are just a couple – maybe even just one –  places that sell high end comic book statues and collectibles. So I’m willing to pay a premium for those items because it’s unique, in limited supply and from a store that I’m loyal to for a handful of reasons. They stock something no one else does.

So here’s the question that every publication considering erecting a paywall should ask: What are you stocking that no one else does? And what are you doing to make sure to retain that value?

Here’s the catch, though: If you think the answer is “Our brand is the premium” you’re doing this wrong. At this point few media brands have that sort of value attached to their name of masthead. People get their news from Facebook or Twitter, where they may follow any number of publications or sites, not from a brand specifically. We’re living in a post-media brand world, some just haven’t realized it yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of publications of any stripe assigning value to their content and asking people to pay for access to it. But without being able to clearly articulate and then deliver on a value proposition all that will result is them learning the same lesson Variety did three years ago, when they saw overall readership decline to the point where they tore down the wall. That’s hardly the only example, as recent history is replete with cases where sites have flip-flopped repeatedly on the paywall decision. And it’s because either they didn’t make the value proposition effectively or, in some cases like Variety, the audience willing to pay for that value wasn’t large enough to sustain the model.

A paywall, is a tricky thing. But it begins, as most things do, with good content. Once that’s solved you can move on to all the other issues.