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Summary:

A Columbia/Indiana University study on reactions to the New York Times paywall suggests that newspapers enacting paywalls should emphasize financial need, not profit, when explaining them to readers. Still, many readers won’t pay.

NYT newspapers
photo: Getty Images / Mario Tama

Okay, maybe “love” is too strong a word, but a new study suggests that newspapers enacting paywalls should emphasize financial need, not profit motives, when announcing them to readers.

The study, “Paying for What Was Free: Lessons from the New York Times Paywall,” is by Columbia University associate research scientist Jonathan Cook and Indiana University assistant professor Shahzeen Attari. They surveyed 954 New York Times  readers shortly after the paper announced, in March 2011, that it would enact a metered paywall, and then again 11 weeks after the paywall was implemented. In the post-paywall survey, participants read one of two “justification” paragraphs, one emphasizing a profit motive and one emphasizing financial need (that paragraph concluded, “if the NY Times does not implement digital subscriptions, the likelihood that it will go bankrupt seems high”).

Participants then “rated how the information changed their support for the paywall and their willingness to pay.” The results showed that “When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall — that the NYT was likely to go bankrupt without it — their support and willingness to pay increased. In contrast, when participants were provided with a justification that emphasized financial stability, their support and willingness to pay decreased.”

The authors conclude, “Our results imply that many NYT readers resisted the newly implemented paywall and that perceptions of fairness are key to helping consumers adapt to abrupt changes in pricing. As other content providers follow the lead of the NYT, they may benefit from providing compelling justifications that convince consumers of financial necessity.”

That said, “most readers planned not to pay and ultimately did not,” the authors write. They “decreased their visits, devalued the NYT, and frequently planned to exploit loopholes to bypass the paywall or switch providers altogether.” So guilt is a somewhat effective weapon, but it’s not a guaranteed way to get readers to pay.

via Jim Romenesko

  1. Cook and Attari’s basic concept is flawed – content is not, and never has been, “free” in the way they use the term. It has been offered without charge but when content is generated it has a cost. That cost is usually offset by advertising, and to a lesser extent subscription rates, but by publishing content online without charge, entities such as the NY Times have allowed readers to circumvent the need to pay for the content they create.

    It stands to reason that when surveyed potential readers would refuse to pay for something they had theretofore received as “free.” But at the heart of this argument, and all arguments regarding paywalls, is that content is not “free” but must be paid for in some way. Paywalls are a finger in the dike until the idea of “free content” is dispelled and not fueled by content providers.

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  2. I don’t think that this is any type of ultimate answer. To appeal to people by saying that if you don’t pay we will go out of business generally has not ever worked. Companies are going out of business all the time. Consumers want their needs met. Period.

    The Daily Show is “free” if I pay for cable which I do not. I could watch it free on the web (with commercials) but I pay 50c or so to watch it on iTunes without commercials.

    Professional content needs business models and so it must find them. It’s pretty narrow minded to focus on the reader and say they need to open their wallet to enjoy the content. Very limiting.

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  3. Readers do not pay to read New York Times content because they are concerned that the paper will go out of business. They pay because they value the content that the NYT publishes. That is why they have had success with their paywall, as well as any other publisher that provides content of value.

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  4. Rodney Johnson Friday, November 2, 2012

    it is a mixed bag, them saying they need to implement the pay wall to say open only works when there’s enough people who think the content inside is worth the price. really this has more to do with convincing the user that they are going to get their money’s worth out of the deal then if any one things the place will stay running. As if to few people believe the company in question is putting out stuff worth getting. then the thought of losing the company is considered okay when it’s run up against the thought of loosing money on bad content. and the idea fails.

    as another example, where I work they do a fund raiser every year for this charity, and they talk at length about all the things the charity does for people, then at the end the revel that if you agree to donate a certain amount each month you get a reserved parking spot for free. everyone I’ve talked to about it, either signed up because they would be willing to rent that reserved spot at that price and this seems to be the only way to do that. or they haven’t sighed up because they can always find a good parking sport because they start early enough. the whole thing about the charity is never brought up, and for me I don’t make enough to be giving my money away to strangers but I signed up because parking so close to the door has saved me more then a few times from being late.

    so like I said really the true essence here is you gotta make the people feel like they are getting a good return on the money they spent.

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