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Lessons from journalism startup Matter: Paywalls make growing readership difficult

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When journalism startup Matter launched a year ago, it was one of the most highly-funded media projects on Kickstarter, having pulled in more than $140,000 in donations — almost three times what it initially set out to raise. As a result, there has been a lot of attention focused on the startup (which was co-founded by former Gigaom writer Bobbie Johnson), and in a recent update the company talked about some of what it has learned.

The number one lesson? Paywalls don’t work very well for a brand-new venture like Matter, which was focused on longform science-and-technology journalism published on a monthly basis. As Johnson described it in his post on Medium (which acquired Matter in April) “people have a low tolerance for barriers of any sort.” Matter recently removed its paywall and said it will also boost the frequency of the pieces it publishes and is working on a membership scheme.

Bobbie Johnson tweet

When it began, Matter had what most would describe as a “hard” paywall — in other words, you had to be a subscriber in order to read an article. Although it subsequently added features that allowed paying users to share articles with non-subscribers, this didn’t have much effect, Johnson says:

“We started out with a pretty straightforward pitch: there are lots of big, tough stories out there that need to be covered. That resonated with a significant number of people, but in the end, our efforts to build a readership were severely hampered by the paywall. Even when we introduced pretty radical sharing options… we saw surprisingly low pickup.”

Out of step with the rhythms of the web

Matter is the second new-media startup to be acquired and subsequently drop its paywall: NSFW Corp., which was founded by former TechCrunch writer Paul Carr and focused on longform investigative journalism, was just acquired by Pando Daily — a site founded by another former TechCrunch writer, Sarah Lacy — and its paywall has also disappeared.

Carr told me in an interview that the site got over 6,000 paying subscribers, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to sustain the business. Pando will keep the monthly print magazine that NSFW Corp. launched, however, which will be enlarged and become a quarterly.

Johnson said the paywall also reduced Matter’s visibility on the web, and hence its ability to attract new readers, because few places wanted to link to or syndicate content that was going to be behind a hard paywall. As he described it: “It turns out that other outlets — from major news outlets to solo expert bloggers, and everywhere in between — are pretty reticent to write about, syndicate, or even link to, paywalled material.”

On Twitter, Johnson also noted that the paywall reduced Matter’s ability to be part of the conversation — or made it “out of step with the rhythms of the web,” as he put it in his Medium post.

Bobbie Johnson tweet1

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni

16 Responses to “Lessons from journalism startup Matter: Paywalls make growing readership difficult”

  1. Steven Brill


    As you continue to fight the war that is over for everyone else, you continue to see lessons everywhere that most other mortals miss about how bad “Paywalls” are.

    With that in mind, don’t you think the fact that the Packers lost so badly to the Lions yesterday is yet another sign that “Paywalls” are bad and that asking people to pay for quality news content online is a really stupid idea?

    What about the fact that it’s so unusually cold on the East Coast today? Any link there to the evils of “Pay Walls”?

    Steve Brill

  2. charles-e.c

    A Solution To Subscription Based Paywalls

    How about replacing PayWalls with a PayPal account button halfway through the articles that allow a monthly subscription for $0.99 or a 30 second monetized commercial. Readers get an option that allows them to watch a commercial or free month access to all articles. The Internet is about freedom of choice that empowers. Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO, Inc. – “Social Media Meets Anonymous”

  3. Greg Golebiewski

    I am not a fun of subscription-based paywalls, let alone hard ones, but in the case of Matter I think the main issue was the conflicting goals of making it popular and hard to access at the same time. One might say it was the “velvet rope” idea gone badly :)

  4. Ophelie Lechat

    Paywalls don’t just limit the audience because few people will link to paywalled articles; those articles won’t receive search engine traffic, which is substantial for most publications. I’m glad to read that smart publications are dropping paywalls.

  5. Richard Van Noorden

    Paywalls may make it difficult to grow an audience. But with no paywalls, a journalism startup may wonder: how do you pay for your expensive, quality journalism covering big, tough stories in the first place? Online ads aren’t going to cut it, and membership schemes may be hard to grow if content is not at least partly paywalled.

    Matter’s answer appears to be: find someone else rich to pay. In Matter’s case, that someone else is the blogging network Medium. I guess this is simply being bank-rolled by its owner Evan Williams (twitter co-founder and billionaire).

    So – philanthropy is the only model for aspiring quality-journalism start-ups?

  6. Shawn Rutherford

    Paywalls are a nail in the coffin. Apps and websites aren’t much better. The human connection will always trump glitzy websites, apps and graphics.

    A news anchor who can connect with viewers, provide them with heartfelt concerned information will outlast any non-human effort… always.