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Why Do So Many Newspaper Sites Have Paywalls?

A very long chain link fence symbolizing being restricted from visiting a Web site by a paywall

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, most sites were free to visit. The expenses of producing and maintaining the sites were paid for by advertising.

The free availability of news to anyone in the Internet-connected world had a democratizing effect. It allowed anyone, anywhere, to access news from multiple reliable sources, regardless of their ability to pay or their distance from the news publishers.

Nowadays, an increasing number of Web sites, especially newspaper sites, are erecting "paywalls" that either completely restrict access to visitors who pay ("hard paywalls"), or limit non-paying visitors to reading only a few articles every week or month ("soft paywalls").

Just as the proliferation of free news sites made current news from reliable journalists available to anyone, the proliferation of paywalls has restricted access to news to those who are willing and able to pay. Paywalls have also limited most people's ability to read news articles from multiple sources to the number of subscriptions they are able and willing to pay for.

Why did so many newspaper sites switch from the ad-supported, free model to the paid-subscription and paywall model?

Let me explain that to you.


How Traditional Newspapers were Paid For

Back when newspapers were really news papers, the bulk of the editorial expenses at most newspapers were paid for by advertising that appeared in the papers. This included the salaries and benefits of the reporters and editors, the expenses they incurred in the course of doing journalism, and most of the expenses associated with creating content.

The price that people paid to subscribe to a newspaper or to purchase it at a newsstand paid mainly for the printing and delivery of the newspapers. The typesetters, pressmen, delivery truck loaders and drivers, paper boys and paper girls, and newsstand owners all derived their income from the purchase or subscription price of the papers.

How the Web Initially Helped the Newspaper Industry

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The advent of the World Wide Web initially seemed like a boon for the newspaper industry. It enabled newspaper companies to distribute journalistic content that had already been produced and paid for to a much wider audience, at much lower costs. It costs a lot less to maintain a Web server than it does to print and deliver physical newspapers, and those low costs could easily be recovered through digital advertising.

Distributing news via the Web also had the advantage of immediacy. Unlike the case with physical newspapers, the Web allowed newspaper companies to publish, update, edit, correct, and even retract news stories instantaneously. The concept of the "deadline" didn't apply to news distributed over the Internet. That made it possible for traditional newspaper companies' content to be as fresh and current as news delivered by television and radio.

In fact, the advent of the Web seemed, for a while, to be just what traditional newspaper companies needed to compete with television and radio news and to recover those lost audiences.

How the Web Hurt the Newspaper Industry

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.

Web-based news distribution did in fact enable newspaper companies to reach more audiences and recover much of their lost readership. But it also led to many current readers canceling their print subscriptions at a much faster rate than the publishers had anticipated. That created two problems.

Firstly, the prices that advertisers pay for print advertisements in paper newspapers is based on paid circulation. Fewer people buying paper newspapers means lower prices for advertisers, which also means lower revenue to pay for the newspaper's editorial costs. It was always the advertisers who paid for the actual creation of news content. Reduced print ad revenue led to shortfalls on the content-creation side of newspaper companies' operations.

Secondly, the purchase and subscription prices paid for the production and delivery of physical newspapers. Those costs don't immediately scale down with reduced circulation. A few costs may even increase, such as the profit percentages demanded by newsstands and paper carriers. But the revenue reduction when fewer physical newspapers are purchased is immediate.

Nonetheless, most newspapers publishers remained optimistic. They focused on increasing digital advertising revenue to compensate for lost print advertising and physical newspaper sales revenue. For a while, that seemed to work. As online readership increased, so did digital advertising revenue. The challenges of transitioning from paper to digital news delivery seemed to be just a matter of adjusting to the new technology. Digital advertising ultimately would save the newspaper industry, the publishers believed.

Unfortunately, they were wrong.


How Ad Blockers Killed Free News Sites

The entire strategy that newspaper companies embraced to save their industry and preserve quality journalism in the digital age was based on digital advertising replacing the revenue lost as a result of reduced print circulation. But for digital advertising to generate revenue, the ads have to be seen. Ad blockers prevent from happening.

Ad blockers are browser extensions that prevent advertisements from showing on a user's browser. This may result in the user having a more pleasant Web browsing experience, but they also make it impossible for site owners and publishers to earn any advertising revenue.

In fairness, a big part of the reason why people started blocking ads was because the advertising was simply getting out of hand. As revenues from their print versions dropped, newspaper sites (along with Web sites in general) responded by placing more ads -- and more annoying and intrusive ads -- on their Web pages. Pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials, sliders, lightboxes, and other types of ads that seemed designed to annoy users were everywhere.

In that context, Internet users could be forgiven for not wanting to be bombarded with such excessive, intrusive, and distracting advertising that the pages they were trying to view became effectively unreadable. As a result, ad blockers quickly became the most popular browser extensions in the history of the Web.

The problem was that many readers' anger became so intense that once they realized they could block annoying ads, they started blocking all ads, not just those that were intrusive or annoying.

Many newspapers and other Web site publishers realized that the proliferation of ad blockers was a response to their own obnoxious advertising practices, and many changed their ways and switched to less-annoying advertisements. But it was too late. The opportunity for a newspaper company to earn enough revenue from digital advertising to pay the bills was gone.

A newspaper company can't survive if no one is paying the bills. Because so many users were blocking the ads that had previously made free news possible, newspaper companies starting requiring users to purchase subscriptions to read the news online. They also put up paywalls to prevent non-subscribers from freeloading.

How Private Browsing is Killing Permissive Paywalls

Initially, most newspaper sites implemented permissive paywalls, also known as "soft" paywalls, that allowed visitors to view a certain number of pages for free every week or month. The reasons were to allow everyone at least some access to breaking news, and to offer visitors free previews of the sites before requiring them to subscribe. It's unreasonable, after all, to expect people to pay money to subscribe to sites that they've never seen.

Alas, the number of news sites that use soft paywalls is dwindling as more sites implement "hard" paywalls that completely limit access to paid subscribers. The reason is that most soft paywalls depend on browser cookies and can be defeated by simply using private browsing, such as Google Chrome's "Incognito" mode.

To fight this simple freeloading method, the news sites started using code that could sniff out private browsing and restrict that ability to users who were logged-in, paid subscribers. Browser makers, starting with Google, responded by changing their code so Web servers would no longer be able to detect when users were browsing privately. This once again made it possible for non-subscribers to read the news for free forever.

Newspaper companies are businesses. They can't survive without revenue. If people insist on blocking the ads, refusing to buy subscriptions, and circumventing the paywalls by using private browsing that the newspapers' servers can't detect, then the newspapers will go bankrupt. Newspapers are left with few options other than putting up hard paywalls that allow no free page views whatsoever. If you're not a paid subscriber, then you can't view the site. Period.


The Effects of Ad Blockers and Paywalls Upon Society

Back in the 1990's, anyone in the Internet-connected world could read the news, as reported by as many different news sources as they liked, no matter where in the world those news sources were located, for free. In retrospect, it was the Golden Age of Internet news. There was no longer any excuse for ignorance. Everyone had free access to more news every day than they could possibly read in a lifetime.

Nowadays, in the age of ad blockers and paywalls (because the two are inextricably linked), most people's access to news is limited to the number of subscriptions they can afford to pay for. That makes it impossible for most folks to read multiple news sources to get the most balanced view possible of controversial issues. The combined subscription costs would simply be too expensive.

Another negative consequences of ad blockers and paywalls is that many of the remaining free and non-paywalled "news" sites aren't really news sites at all. They're propaganda sites. They don't erect paywalls because they don't exist to make money. They'll take whatever ad revenue comes along, but the real reason they exist is to push propaganda. They don't even try to publish objective news.

In summary, ad blockers and paywalls have had a devastating effect on what could have been a new age of universal access to quality journalism, regardless of where a reader lived or whether they could afford to pay. It's not an exaggeration to say that we could have eradicated ignorance. Unfortunately, that was not to be. What we have now, as a direct result of ad blockers and paywalls, is a world in which one's access to information is limited by their ability to pay for it.

We could have defeated ignorance through universal access to facts. But in the end, ignorance won.