Monday, December 09, 2019

Paywalls On the Rise

Excuse me for getting self-referential in what follows, but something has been happening that readers have probably noticed as well, and I think it's time to talk about it. 

I suppose I've run across the word "paywall" before, but it must be of fairly recent vintage.  It refers to the practice of a publication to require payment for access to part or all of their online content.  Way back in 1996, the Wall Street Journal was the first major newspaper to erect what is called a "hard" paywall.  You can't see a thing unless you pay them something.  Among other things, this explains why I never refer directly in this blog to articles in the Wall Street Journal.  I'd have to go down to the library and peruse a paper issue and make a copy of any article I'd want to refer to, and for somebody who is too lazy to devote more than an hour or so a week to a blog, that's too much trouble.  

Up till recently, it was no problem to read the content of almost any newspaper you care to name (other than the WSJ) online, without paying anybody anything.  One of my favorite sources was the New York Times.  (Full disclosure:  for a few years back in the early 2000s, my wife worked for writing a breast-cancer blog, and was a wholly owned subsidiary of the NYT.)  But a few years back, they instituted what's called a "soft" paywall:  using cookies or other hard-to-evade means, they allocate each reader a certain number of free articles, and then you run out and either give up or have to subscribe—or run to the library.  It's never been entirely clear to me how that works—when they reset your monthly clock and whether you could outfox it by checking in through a different browser, for instance.  But as all those measures are beyond what I would contemplate doing, it's rather academic to me.

There are still sites without paywalls, but more and more of the ones I am used to checking on are implementing at least soft ones—Wired's website, for example, now budgets my articles just like the NYT does.  Although I don't read National Review for articles about engineering ethics, I have been in the habit of reading it in the past, but now they've implemented a soft paywall too.  Theirs takes the form of some sort of "plus" subscription.  Even though you subscribe to the print edition, you have to pay extra to get access to the online elite version, and certain articles that you can only see the headlines of on their free site.  So far, I haven't bothered.  The plebeian free version of their website has become so ad-besotted with animations and videos that I've pretty much given up reading it at all.

Now, all these outfits are private firms, and if they want to follow the Wall Street Journal's example and erect hard paywalls, turning the Internet into a glorified newspaper delivery service, that's their right.  Obviously, there's some economic force driving these policy changes. 

The Wikipedia article "Paywall" confirms my suspicions that their use is increasing.  An Oxford University study showed that the number of U. S. papers using paywalls increased from 60% in 2017 to 76% in 2019.  That's a pretty significant increase in a short time.  The article blames ad-blockers for motivating the transition to paywalls.  Another factor is the concentration of most ad revenue in the top 50 or so sites, meaning that smaller operations simply can't stay afloat without getting some cash directly from their readers.

It looks like we're coming to the end of an era which began late in the twentieth century with the dawn of the Internet, when print media were just thrilled to be online at all, never mind people having to pay for it.  As hard-copy readers get older and die off (ahem, nothing personal here, I hope), the future certainly looks all-digital.  If history is any guide, the only kind of print publications that could make it exclusively through ad revenue were not that prestigious.  Think your local weekly delivered-free neighborhood paper that is 95% ads, or the trade journal whose scant editorial content exists mainly just to keep the ads apart. 

For a shoestring operation like I run here, this is bad news, in that it means some of my favorite sources are gradually drying up.  There's still plenty of material out there, and I have yet to get up on a Sunday morning and have all my attempts to discover something worth writing about thwarted by paywalls.  But it's inevitably going to have its effect, and it's not a good one.  I've had complaints in the past for relying too heavily on free sites such as Wikipedia, so I try to draw from a variety of sources, print as well as digital.  The other day I was totting up in my head the number of print magazine and journal subscriptions I have, and I think I lost count at about a dozen.  So it's not like I'm a total freeloader.  But print lacks the immediacy of digital, and if the day comes when some important engineering-ethics event happens behind paywalls exclusively, you may not read about it here.

For what it's worth, I can pledge right here and now that you, gentle reader, will never find a paywall on this site.  For one thing, I wouldn't know how to do it.  And for another thing, I'd be extremely reluctant to run off even a small fraction of the few faithful readers that I have, by asking them to pay for what I write.  On and off during my career, I have thought about writing for a living.  But when I looked into what most writers get paid, I pretty quickly changed my mind and kept doing what I was doing instead.

Anybody who reads free sites on the Internet already pays for them with the valuable commodities known as time and attention.  It's just that we may have to kick in a little cash too in the future. 

Sources:  The Wikipedia article "Paywalls" was the only source I used.  The survey about paywalls was done by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in May 2019.

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