Monday, April 15th. Two bombs explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a big news day. More than two hundred are injured, three are killed and the Boston Globe’s pay wall comes down. In the world of Internet news content that’s almost news by itself.
Pay walls prevent Internet readers from using webpage content (mainly news and scholarly readings) without paying. They’ve been controversial because for years, online newsreaders have taken free content for granted. Not anymore and not on that Monday. News about the Marathon Bombing was free for all. And not just in Boston.
“Boston forced us to come up with a (pay-wall) policy when breaking news happens,” says Seattle Times, Executive Editor David Boardman. “When public safety and welfare are concerned,” says Boardman, “we’ll put those stories (and only those) outside the pay-wall.” “When the coast is clear,” he adds, “we’ll put it back.” The Times briefly took down their pay wall for Boston Bombing stories.
The Seattle Times started their pay-wall three weeks ago. For $3.99 a week you get digital content and in some cases a paper copy of the Sunday edition. Boardman says there was some initial pushback but now the pay wall is beginning to pay off. “We’ve been really encouraged,” says Boardman. “They’re well above the numbers that we were expecting.” The Seattle Times gets 7 million unique page views a month. “Today, there are 450 dailies with a pay wall,” Boardman says. “It’ll become the norm one day.”
This week, the New York Times has taken down its pay wall for video. Professor David Domke at the University of Washington says pay walls are here to stay. “They’re showing up more and more,” he says. At first he says, they were more experimental but now, “Enough of the traditional print audience has gone online so we’re entering the era of the pay wall.”
The Times says it’s no longer restricting non-subscribers access to video as part of its plan to “expand its brand in the video space.”
But it’s not just big dailies.
The Chinook Observer charges its readers $33 a year for digital news content. The Observer serves the Long Beach area in Pacific County in Southwest Washington. Editor and publisher Matt Winters says, “Some of it is arbitrary. “We’re still trying to decide what to charge.” They’re planning to publish an on-line business publication, which he says they’ll charge for as well. “It’s all about re-purposing content,” he says. “It’ll be experimental.” “In essence,” he says, “we are an information society. At some point you have to assign real value,” he says. “Otherwise the paradigm falls apart.”
But the UW’s David Domke wonders how much online news content we really read because of pay walls. “People are now able to ‘a la carte’ the paper. Picking and choosing what they read now more than when readers open a traditional ‘ink on your hands’ hard copy. “It’s unfortunate,” Domke says. “When I read the paper I encounter so much more.” “Part of it is when I actually do ‘read’ the newspaper, I’ve said to myself, “I’ve got time to read the paper. It’s really a loss for our culture. We’re so busy now. We’ve taught ourselves to just quickly glance at the news. Reading a twitter update is not the same as engaging with the news,” says Domke. “It’s fundamentally different to read at a stoplight than to sit down and actually read the newspaper at home.”
At The Seattle Times, David Boardman says the pay wall has to make sense. “It has to have news content they can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “The main point”, Boardman says, “is if they (the readers) don’t perceive that it won’t work.” Still, Boardman says, “The pay wall doesn’t provide enough money.” But what it does, he adds, “is to get people conditioned to get used to paying for content.”