Both Poynter and Wired take a look at how the New York Time’s digital paywall is actually working since its implementation.
So, if it’s always been possible on any given day to pick up the local paper somewhere for free, why did people ever pay? Not because they had to, but because it was easier to get it placed on their doorstep every morning (convenience), because they felt if they were going to read it every day they ought to pay (duty), or because they wanted to support the institution and people that produced it (appreciation).
Those are the same three reasons someone might subscribe to the The New York Times’ digital content. Not because they have to, but because it’s easier than hacking your way around it every day, because they remind you occasionally that you should, or just because you want to support the work they do.
Not only is that easier for the Times than strictly policing a firm paywall, it may actually bring more subscribers and more money. It’s possible that you get more from readers by asking nicely than by demanding. Persistent but unobtrusive requests to subscribe are enough to create a strong social norm that you, reader, ought to pay.
Here’s the thing about freeloaders: if they value what they’re getting, a lot of them will end up paying anyway. What happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by 33%.
Sales people and business-side executes tend to believe as a matter of faith that if people can get something for free, they won’t pay for it. But all they need to do is look at their own behavior to see how that isn’t true: when they go to a restaurant in a distant town that they’ll never visit again, they still leave a 20% tip. A large segment of the population feels that it’s only proper to pay for something if you’re getting value from it — and if you invite as many people as possible onto your lawn, that’s a great way of maximizing the number of people who get value from it. Especially in a world where your own enjoyment of it doesn’t impinge on anybody else’s.
The fact is that no one subscribes to the WSJ or the FT because of their exclusivity. As a result, the smart thing for both papers to do is to maximize their paying readership by maximizing their overall readership. Instead, both have taken a scared and defensive approach to digital subscriptions, fearing that if their readers can get their content for free, then they won’t pay.
Wonderfully, the NYT seems to have disproved that idea.
This is something the media world has never understood. The music industry never quite got this until it was “too late” and the movie/television industry is going through the same thing. For whatever reason, the publishing industry seems to have less digital disruption. Doesn’t it feel like a smoother transition for books to the digital age?