The Rundown: Paywall pains

2018 is turning into the year of the paywall as publishers realize advertising, and certainly the platforms, won’t save the day for them. Wired, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Business Insider and Bloomberg have launched digital paywalls in recent months, and others have said they’re exploring reader-revenue schemes.

But at some point, publishers will start bumping into each other. Case in point is Bloomberg, which is elbowing its way into a category already teeming with subscription publications like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist and recently, Business Insider. Bloomberg set the meter at a generous 10 articles per month, but as Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith conceded, some of the growth of his company’s new paywall would come at the expense of competitors. Even credit card-expensed subscriptions have their limit.

Beyond news, some of the same customers these publishers are going after already pay for other media services like Netflix, Spotify or Amazon Prime, and their appetite to keep paying more isn’t limitless. A large portion of subscriptions for publications such as Bloomberg and the Journal will end up on corporate credit cards, of course, but expense accounts aren’t infinite, either.

The subscription market is changing so fast, and with it, people’s expectations, so it’s hard to tell when people will reach their limit for what they’ll pay for media or how much the market for people willing to pay for news in the first place will keep growing.

A Media Insight Project survey of 4,100 recent newspaper subscribers found that 8 in 10 also pay for cable or satellite TV, but about 4 in 10 respondents pay for another newspaper, and 7 in 10 pay for some other source of news. The incumbents realize holding on to the subscribers they already have is a full-time gig. The New York Times’ first-quarter digital subscriber growth took a hit year over year when many of those that took its deeply discounted offer last year didn’t renew.

Nic Newman, a research associate at the Reuters Institute, predicts that publishers’ digital subscriptions will keep growing, but they’ll start to take different forms, such as the Guardian-style donations, lower-priced tiers and multi-publication bundles, as publishers look for ways to appeal to the more budget-conscious. Maybe this means the Spotify-type model where people pay once for access to lots of publications actually has a future. 

It’s common for publishers to think the journalism they produce and how they deliver it is special and unique, even if those distinctions are far more obvious to them than they are to the audience. But now, when publishers weigh whether what they do is worth charging for, they also have to consider the increasing number of subscription publications that are competing for not just consumers’ money, but time. Those who waited to launch pay models also will face a higher barrier of entry because they have to go up against well-established incumbents. Paywalls may not be the panacea that some may have hoped.

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