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Five ways media companies can build paywalls around people instead of content

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With a few exceptions, the paywalls and subscription plans that have been erected by hundreds of newspapers and other publications over the past year share one quality — namely, they ask readers to pay a single amount for everything that is published, regardless of what those readers are interested in. What else could these publications do? Here’s one suggestion: Why not monetize individual writers? Doing do could build stronger relationships with readers that would create more long-term value, and possibly prevent some star writers from going the Andrew Sullivan route.

This might not be easy to do — especially since many media outlets seem to have their hearts (and wallets) set on paywalls as a solution — but the industry is in such dire straits at this point that almost any reasonable idea probably shouldn’t be ruled out. Some publications are betting on sponsored content, some are relying on real-world events and others are looking at affiliate links or “brand journalism.” Why not personal paywalls? (Note: We’re going to be talking about alternative monetization strategies at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17).

Why personal paywalls? Getting to know readers

I’ve tried to argue in the past that one of the biggest weaknesses of traditional paywalls or subscription plans is the undifferentiated quality they bring to a newspaper’s content: everyone hits the same wall and is asked to pay the same amount, regardless of their interests. This reinforces one of the overall weaknesses many traditional publishers have, which is that they know virtually nothing about their readers — or at least not enough to take advantage of that knowledge in any meaningful way. They are about as personalized as a street-corner newspaper box.

This is important because advertisers in particular are looking for personalized targeting, which is one of the reasons they are looking to new providers such as Facebook and Twitter for their business — those outlets can give them targeting based around an almost infinite number of variables, from income and geographic location to voting behavior. In other words, newspapers and other traditional outlets would benefit from getting to know their readers better in just about any way they possibly can.


One of those ways is to take advantage of the increasingly social nature of media in a digital age, and build monetization strategies around individuals rather than the artificial package of news and other content known as a newspaper. Many readers — particularly younger ones — consume media based not on corporate brands but on individual writers that they feel a connection to, and I would argue that is becoming the norm. We read the New York Times as much for Tom Friedman or Nick Kristof as we do because it is the NYT.

Five ways to create a personal paywall

Not all of these will apply to every writer at every publication, but many will. The overall idea is to take a lesson from the music industry in how to make money from content — the music business has spent a decade figuring out (painfully) that the songs themselves are not what people want to pay for. What they want to pay for is access to artists, both virtual and physical, and for ways of deepening that relationship. So here are some ways newspapers could take advantage of the same principle:

1) Allow readers to pay for an all-in-one package: If what readers identify with is Nick Kristof at the New York Times or Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal or Felix Salmon at Reuters, then give them a way to get that writer’s content — in whatever form — in one easy package. Maybe they blog, write news stories, do video interviews, post on Twitter, etc. Provide all of that for a fee, and make it as appealing as possible and as easy as possible for readers to find and consume it.

2) Create new forms of specialized content: Maybe your wine correspondent is the star attraction for many readers — so why not provide early access to their reviews for readers who sign up for a membership in a personal paywall plan? This is also a model that many musicians have used to their advantage, by providing early access to music (or to better quality files) for members of a fan club.

3) Host live events featuring your writers: Plenty of publications, including The Atlantic and the Texas Tribune, are looking to monetize their content by putting on events that appeal to readers. But not everything has to be a 500-person conference — why not have smaller events that cater to a more exclusive reader group, where they can listen to an interview with a prominent figure in a particular area, and then mix and mingle with other readers who share their interests?

4) Create a virtual community worth paying for: Plenty of newspapers have topic pages or even author pages, but they do little to develop a real feeling of community for readers that justifies an extra fee. This is about more than just content — it’s about providing user forums, or wiki pages about a topic that readers (who pay a membership fee) can contribute to, or a chance for a one-on-one discussion with the writer. In other words, a real community that the writer in question is a part of.

5) Provide access to your writers’ expertise: If you have a writer who has some specialized expertise, whether it’s financial analysis or political savvy or technological knowledge, why not let them provide some of their professional advice to paying customers? This would be similar to a service like Gerson Lehrman or a startup called Clarity, where people buy a specific amount of time to ask an expert questions. Some might see this as a conflict for journalists, but it doesn’t have to be if it’s handled properly.

Offer your core readers more, not less


The bottom line with all of these suggestions is to look at membership or a subscription as a way of offering your readers more than just the regular news and content that you publish — an approach similar to the “reverse paywall” model that Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Raju Narisetti and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis have both suggested in the past. This bases the monetization on a relationship with readers that is focused on rewards, not just putting up a paywall that everyone runs into after a certain number of pageviews.

Will this prevent some star writers from doing what Andrew Sullivan did and going solo? That’s not guaranteed, but if a writer sees themselves as being in partnership with the newspaper or magazine they write for — something that might even include a share of the extra revenue from the personalized-rewards model — they might be less likely to consider setting up shop on their own, especially if they saw a benefit from the marketing muscle that mainstream publications can provide.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Christian Scholtz, and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq

18 Responses to “Five ways media companies can build paywalls around people instead of content”

  1. We always here of the writer who should be paid for their work but don’t charge and some end up quitting. It sounds like a good model to put in place, and there are examples of people using this paid modle which others can look to for ideas on how to put it into place for themselves.

  2. 6) Introduce a monetizable sampling path to expose new users to premium offerings, rather than simply enabling unfettered access that most users won’t appreciate.

    It’s been proven time and again that presenting a soft friction point, such as a rich brand interaction, in front of premium content, or a premium feature, is a proven best practice that generates high monetization and user loyalty, while also producing a secondary bell curve of subscriber conversion in the fence-sitter and late-payer consumer set.

    This is not an experiment, it’s a bankable best practice proven out by publishers in the innovator and early adopter categories.

  3. Eldon Sarte

    Hmmm. Thinking rapidly out loud…

    Maybe take a cue from the music industry: Get out of subscription-package pricing (album) and go for micro payments just for content the reader wants (buying individual songs cheap).

    I’m thinking cheap. Very cheap. IMPULSE cheap. As in, “Yeah, I can probably find this news/info elsewhere, but hell, it’s only XX cents here and now and easily, and they write sufficiently well, so what the hey.”

    Take a cue from Amazon and make it ONE-CLICK easy.

    Problem: Payment processing costs will be prohibitive. Possible solution: Pre-sell credits, so instead of paying XX cents to read an article and processing a CC charge each time, reader just pays with credits or points. May help stimulate even more impulse buying behavior… Incentive: Make costs per credit cheaper when reader buys more of them at a time. (20 credits = $5 or 40 credits for $9 or so on so forth).

    Maybe allow readers to sell back credits (at a loss) if they no longer want them. Not too big of a loss but enough to make them think twice before cashing out. Gives them a little out for the warm fuzzies that’ll get them to tie up funds buying bulk credits in the first place.

    Maybe minimize the need to hassle with figuring out pricing based on popularity. Best writers or even topics will earn the most credits from the readers. The system has built-in metrics!!! (Author celebrity different story; publisher may want to charge more to access them).

    Hmm. OK, thinking out loud done. Have fun!

  4. Bill Garber

    Narisetti and Jarvis have the right idea. Create and offer more to subscribers and members willing to pay. Putting a moat around a 1950’s Levittown home will not raise its value relative to the neighbor’s homes.

  5. Matt Terenzio

    And it might just be the case that knowing the users really well would enable the kind of targeting that would make this discussion moot. For example, the two or three local supermarkets have enough marketing dollars to fund a small journalism team. In order to get that revenue, you need to provide them with highly personal data. Real value, not a broadcast interstitial on this weeks meat specials, but the fact that I buy peanut butter every three weeks, I’m due for a purchase, and they’ll offer me Skippy (my favorite) for a special price, just for me being a loyal customer. And while I’m there I also need paper towels. Until this type of thing is a common part of the model, there is still lots of work to do.

  6. Angus Swan

    Monetizing authors, mmm, that’s an interesting idea. Let’s turn it into a business and call it…Publishing! Book publishers know the ins and outs of managing the relationship with authors and gaining them access to readers. One potential flaw in your plan is authors who use a publisher platform to generate a revenue model for themselves and then leave to exploit that model. Unbundling is not going to curb that tendency but increase it – it’s going to let star authors know exactly what they are worth. Of course, newspapers and periodicals have always known they have star authors and recompensed accordingly. The underlying question is – what is the value of the curative aspect of publishing that brings content together in one place – for both readers and authors. For authors its principally around discovery, and the more discovered an author is, the lower the value. But book publishers have found ways of maintaining commercial relationships with authors who have been discovered enough to go it alone – but choose not to. So in summary, periodical publishers should copy some of the techniques of book publishers.

  7. Ali Al-Ebrahim

    This article is really nice for a startup that’s trying to do exactly what is described here.

    I hope we can convince the publishers! This 2 min youtube explains what we do:

  8. Ulrike Langer

    I see the strength in your points 2) through 5), but don’t see how anyone would sign up for number 1), if some or most of the package consists of extra activity by star writers. Who would pay a premium to read a writers’s private blog, follow them on Twitter or Google+ etc. ? That’s all easy to access for free.

  9. Tom Foremski

    Paying attention to readers is brilliant advice but terribly difficult because in the Andrew Sullivan model it is based on Andrew Sullivan and Andrew Sullivan can’t be everywhere.

    Funding from many people means an additional amount of time engaging with investors, which in the case of crowd-funding means lots and lots of investors. It’s not a sustainable model, imho. And it’s a model that very few people can make work.

    Unless you already have a base it’s hugely difficult to do from scratch.

    We need a viable funding model for journalism. We know advertising can’t do it. It has to be a Heinz 57 model – multiple revenue streams.

  10. Sailsmart

    People don’t want to pay for ideas that can be posted first hand from the writer online without a curator like NYTimes editorial board red penciling changes to satisfy advertisers. They will pay for clean content w/o the belly fat ads, distractions of google games and tricks to catch and track readers. They want safe, anonymous, ad free content. Pay tv model is dead and gone. Time is premium and so is online security.

  11. the person who figures out how to syndicate in the new world will be king. users will not subscribe to multiple pay sites, rather they would choose one fee to access multiple content providers.

    • It kind of was, yes — but I think they should have gone more granular. I would pay for Kristof, but don’t want to pay for the rest. It would be fine with me if Kristof quit the Times and went solo and I could pay him directly, but I assume the NYT doesn’t want that :-)

      • Ali Al-Ebrahim

        My startup is trying to do exactly that, allow publishers to sell small sections/feeds of their paywalls for small prices.

        Users get to buy and have them in a beautiful readerapp with a “create and share your own newspaper” experience.

        I’d love to see what you think:

      • Bob Jones

        How much of this is just marketing?

        Implicit in the proposed model is that as a consumer I will expect to pay less for access to one individual’s content, say $x, than for a bundle of all a publication’s writers, $z which = $x+$y.

        The publisher could choose to market access to the star individual as costing $z which includes FREE access to all other content. I.e. The price remains the same just the marketing has changed. Or indeed make $z the new starting price for one author and $z+$y for everything.

        This is made trickier being the anchor price for stuff on the internet is commonly zero.