Condé Nast announced on Wednesday, 23 January that it plans to have all of its online articles – across all media titles – behind paywalls by the end of the year. Was this a bold move, or a sign of things to come for the media industry?

While paywalls are nothing new, it is noteworthy that such a large media company will choose to incorperate the option into all of its media titles.

What does this move mean for the media industry as a whole? That is precisely what media update’s Aisling McCarthy will uncover.

Wait, what is a paywall?

A paywall is a feature of a website that requires users to pay in order to access the site’s content. Paywalls are increasingly being used to limit access to journalistic articles so only those who subscribe to the site, or pay for access, can read the article.

The rise of paywalls represents a shift in Internet content, which has traditionally been free for users and paid for by advertising. As more and more print publications go online, the paywall has risen in popularity, providing news sites with a revenue flow.

There are two categories of paywalls: hard and soft. Hard paywalls are set up with rigorous restrictions that prevent users from gaining any access to the site without subscribing. Soft paywalls allow limited viewing of content free of charge.

Frédéric Filloux, writing for The Guardian, suggests that there is a third category, which involves a metred system where users are allowed to view a certain number of articles free of charge, during a given time period. To view more articles, the user would have to become a paid subscriber.

Why did Condé Nast choose paywalls?

Condé Nast has a strong history of using paywalls, which started in 2014 with The New York Times. Wired and Vanity Fair have also since been placed behind metred paywalls, where readers cannot access more than four articles a month unless they subscribe to the publication.

“Since then, audiences at The New York Times, Wired and Vanity Fair have proven that they are willing to pay for the quality content we create, and the performance of those paywalls has exceeded our expectations,” says CEO Bob Sauerberg.

But won’t implementing paywalls mean a drop in readership? Not according to Pamela Drucker Mann, Condé Nast’s chief revenue and marketing officer. “When you put a price tag on something, that must mean you have confidence in the product.”

Like many other publications experimenting with – or successfully using – paywalls, Condé Nast is searching for ways to revive its growth. Many advertisers have moved away from print, and the fight for digital ad revenue makes nearly every publisher a David versus Goliaths like Google and Facebook.

"When you put a price tag on something, that must mean you have confidence in the product."

How to make paywalls work

Digital media has disrupted the long-understood concept of paying for journalism. Print journalism is a costly exercise, and newspaper and magazine readers have always understood this and subsequently paid for their content.

However, thanks to digital media, many subscribers have become accustomed to getting their content free of charge. And while you can get content without paying for it, you have no guarantee of the quality or accuracy of it.

Newspaper readers knew that the journalistic principles that guided the print publications to produce first-hand, quality, in-depth reporting was worth paying for. And digital publications need to offer the same value proposition to be worth subscribing to.

If publications offer readers real value, they will become subscribers. But what does real value look like? It is content that:

  • Is well-written, error free and high quality
  • Uses accurate and reliable sources
  • Cannot be found elsewhere
And while that last point can often be tricky, as there is so much content available all across the Internet, if you can offer your readers content of an unmatched quality, you will still see success.

"If publications offer readers real value, they will become subscribers."

While many readers tend to be sceptical of having to pay for content that used to be free, it is important to recognise that for online journalism to be sustainable, there has to be some kind of payment for content as well as a move away from ad revenue.

At the 2017 IAB Digital Summit, maven editor and journalist Ferial Haffajee said that paid-for journalism is vital to ensure high-quality journalism about the real issues.

“I don’t know about you, but I pay for my news...I pay for good journalism because it’s quality, it’s specialised and it’s sophisticated," she said.

‘The free model is an important democratising one in that you are making news free, but then what’s the quid pro quo in that? Who is going to pay for the journalist to do the important work, and what do you do when you can see journalism weakening?”

Although there has been – and continues to be – much debate about whether or not paywalls will be successful, it is clear that the media industry, both in South Africa and abroad, is set to change.

What are you thoughts on digital media using paywalls? Let us know in the comments below.

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Want to know a little more about why so many publishers are starting to implement paywalls? Check out our article, Why online publishers are favouring subscriptions.