There is a Russian proverb that says “The only free cheese is in a mousetrap”. It looks like the freebee of online newspapers, which used to be available without paying to anybody who wanted to read them for at least 15 years now, may be slowly coming to an end. The free cheese has been all eaten up and the jaws of the traps are beginning to clamp down on the hungry rodents.
After the New York Times announced their new pay-for-access mousetrap about a year ago as I wrote in this post, the Washington Post waited until now to announce that it would also “probably” start charging its online readers from June of next year based on the so called metered access paywall. As the Washington Post accumulated about 600 thousand regular digital readers, many of them no doubt defectors from the New York Times, the paper is now trying to figure out how to turn hundreds of thousands of digital freeloaders into hundreds of thousands or millions of digital profit centers. The reaction of online readers of the paper to the management’s intention has been very negative as one can read in the paper’s comment section here. The Scottish Guardian newspaper, which I read (used to read?) frequently, mostly for uncensored, frank opinions published in the Comment section under the now ironic logo “Comment Is Free”, has also put in place a brand new paywall.
Although so many newspapers seem to be catching the mousetrap disease now, it is relatively easy to dig a tunnel under the presently existing paywalls newly erected by some newspapers. You can fool the software that newspapers are using to spy on their readers for example by using more than one computer, or another device, and more than one browser. Since most freelance translators have at least one desktop and one notebook, as well as tablets, etc., most of us can easily go over the limit of puny 5 free views per month.
But because it is a hassle to have to launch another browser (I use Mozilla, Internet Explorer and Chrome), or go to another computer, I consciously avoid clicking on an article when I read the news summary on the New York Times these days even if I am somewhat interested in the subject. I assume most people will probably do the same thing.
There is not really such a big difference between the topics and the manner in which news is covered for instance by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and since I have a subscription to the Washington Post on paper, that is what I mostly read. Incidentally, since the eloquent and intrepid columnists who write for The Guardian also publish their columns in other media which is at this point free, I just created new bookmarks for that media and stopped reading The Guardian because I don’t really need to read the rest of that paper.
I know that newspapers are trying to figure out how to survive the age of Internet, and one way to remain solvent could be through paid digital subscriptions. But I think that it will be very difficult to overcome the problems that the modern newspapers have because, well, because the model is obsolete and does not work.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the main mission of newspapers was to inform the reading public about things that the public needed to know because back then people understood that a well informed citizenry is a crucial part of democracy. It was Thomas Jefferson who said “If I had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter”.
But those were very different times indeed when the main mission of newspapers was to inform, rather than to maximize the profit for the publisher, which is the main mission of newspapers now. When the newspaper management now has to choose between many readers without much revenue from each of them, and not so many readers, but with at least some revenue from each of them, they will be choosing the latter, perhaps after a slight moment of hesitation, because for many decades the newspaper model was based on profitability through advertising rates, rather than profitability through newspaper subscriptions to readers who are really interested in what the newspaper is saying.
Because the model which is based on deep pockets of advertisers does not work nearly as well in the digital world as it used to work in what some people refer to as “dead tree media”, the hope is that digital subscribers will now come to the rescue.
The problem is, digital subscribers are very different from advertisers. While a relatively small percentage of them would be willing to pay for a digital subscription, including myself, they would do so only if the newspaper offered them valuable content that other media is simply not offering. Unfortunately, that is not exactly the case.
And unlike in the times of Thomas Jefferson when newspapers were extremely important partly because they were pretty much the only game time, we now have many source of information that we can go to instead of newspapers, including blogs, and most young people don’t even read newspapers anymore, not even on the Internet. They prefer to post their pictures on Facebook and comment on them. Sic transit gloria mundi [thus passes the glory of the world].
The mousetrap model with free cheese works wonderfully and you can use this clever invention to kill a lot of mice because they are usually hungry and not too bright.
When you use the same model by trying to charge “digital subscribers” of your newspaper for formerly free cheese, you will be killing most of your former readers who have a lot of free alternatives if the jaws of your digital trap clamp down, just as efficiently as a mousetrap is killing hungry rodents, as long as other information sources are still available for free.
Online readers will only pay you if your newspaper provides really valuable content that is simply not available anywhere else, which is unfortunately something that none of the newspapers mentioned here is offering.
The Washington Post is now reconsidering its decision to follow The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and erect a paywall on its website from June of next year (most likely because the editors read my post on this subject). It is a tough decision for the paper because 90% of its digital audience lives outside the Washington, D.C., area – the paper has 650,000 readers who read it on paper every Sunday (I am one of them), while 18 million unique readers come to the Web site each month.