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The Times they are a-changin’

When the internet became a household necessity, many newspapers set up online repositories of their print material, making news and quality writing accessible to people regardless of geographic location. Now, following the migration of print journalism to the web, comes the slow but sure migration of its price.

The Wall Street Journal became the first newspaper to implement a paywall in 1997, charging users for use of their website. In June of 2010, the London Times began charging £1 per day or £2 per week for online access to the newspaper. Just last year, the New York Times and Boston Globe followed suit with so-called “soft” paywalls in the form of digital subscriptions. Such paywalls come up after a reader’s article “allowance” is exceeded for the month, and cue the reader to subscribe to one of several options.

Adding a charge to something that was once free is always tricky. Nobody likes to see an increase in price, and an increase from zero seems most outrageous of all. Of course, there is also the very probable circumstance that such an increase will be prohibitive for some readers – includig students.

The effect on news awareness and expediency, however, is deemphasized in student responses to the paywall. Caroline Mei, a U1 Arts and Science student, said: “I never use it for news; if I read something on the New York Times, it’s either a special feature or an opinion article.” The usage of such high-profile papers such as the New York Times seems to have this common theme – readers of these newspapers are not looking for up to date information on the world’s events, but on interpretations and high-quality writing. Jassi Pannu, a U1 Biology student, said, “the New York Times is not the first place you go to get a news flash. It’s like the Economist – people read it to see the opinions and the analyses. Most breaking news comes to us through Facebook and Twitter now.”

It is the recognition that the New York Times and similar publications’ value lies in the quality of its pieces that allows students, and readers in general, to appreciate the reasons for a paywall, though they may not enjoy its ramifications. “As a reader, I don’t like that the online stuff is no longer free,” said Mei. “But in terms of it being fair, these are corporations with intellectual property copyright laws.” Pannu agreed that it seems reasonable to charge for something that is of such high quality.

And yet, though readers can see the reasons behind the charge, few really want to pay. There is, as Mei called it, “a rift between the nature of the information on the internet and the nature of news making corporations.” The internet is a place of freebies, of open courseware, of TV streaming, of free video chat. Charging to read articles goes against the whole environment.

But it is hard to deny that the articles, at least in print form, are worth money; and the shift of the medium, from newsprint to webpage, does not devalue the quality of those articles. So if a multi-section Sunday paper is worth $3.90, then it follows that a website containing archives upon archives of these editions should be worth just as much, if not more. It is, after all, the intellectual basis of these articles that is worth money, not the medium upon which it is printed.

Newspapers such as the New York Times and the London Times know this, and as Simon Albert-Lebrun, a political science major who transferred to McGill from Carleton’s journalism program, put it, they are “trying to set up their old income strategy on a new form of outlet.” Yet many of us still refuse to pay, and most would rather stop reading the material, than shell out hard-earned dollars. The hesitance is not a reflection of the articles’ worth, but, as Albert-Lebrun said, more about readers growing accustomed to their ability to “bypass…the price for news” through the internet.

The effects of the most recently implemented paywalls are already becoming evident, at least on the news conglomerates’ side. Hitwise, a web analytics firm reported daily readership declines of 5 per cent-15 per cent for the New York Times immediately following the implementation of its paywall. Page view figures declined 20 per cent-30 per cent in the same period of time. However, paywalls can have the capacity to bring in online subscribers and revenue. The Wall Street Journal had amassed more than a million web subscribers by 2007, ten years after they started charging for online readership. But the newspapers seem to have a more hidden – and arguably bigger – goal than simply returns from online subscriptions, or even increasing or retaining online readership.

Take the New York Times, for example. Each reader is allowed twenty articles per month, after which they are prompted to pay, through one of three options: access to the website and smartphone app for a monthly charge of $15; access to the website and tablet app for $20; and all-inclusive digital access for $35. These are US prices, and, while there are promotional offers, at the end of the day, these are the prices of access to digital coverage.

Worth noticing, however, are the comparisons between digital and print subscriptions. Print subscription comes with free unlimited access to the website, smartphone app, and tablet app – in other words, it is the ultimate digital package, with a hefty heap of newspapers outside your door at least once a week. This free digital access comes with just a Sunday paper subscription, for the price, in New York City, of $3.30 a week, or a weekday subscription for $3.25 a week – a far better deal than the digital subscriptions offered. Even the most comprehensive – and pricey – print option of daily delivery in NYC weighs in at $6.05 a week, or $24.20 a month. Still cheaper than the price of all-inclusive digital access.

So what kind of game is the New York Times playing? Simple math done by a second year undergraduate cannot have gone undetected by its financial department, or by its legions of readers. There is a strategy behind this math, and the strategy appears to be this: make print subscriptions the better deal, to save print newspapers from becoming obsolete. In other words, they do not want readers to climb over the paywall, but instead go around it, through a path that will inevitably lead to the purchase of a thick stack of newsprint.

The reason these news corporations are trying to push print journalism is, as you can easily guess, money. This is not money gained from subscriptions, but from advertisements. Print advertisements can generate up to ten times the revenue of an online advertisement. And presumably, this is beginning to work – while subscriptions are not exactly increasing, the New York Times has, in the past year, managed to staunch the loss of existing subscribers.

Reader loyalty may be enough to account for this short-term return, but is this a sustainable strategy? Students, as a demographic, seem to feel no such loyalty. They begin to adapt their own behaviours: “I start getting strategic, so if it’s not something specific to the New York Times, then I’ll Google it”, said Mei.  Albert-Lebrun predicts a more global and widespread shift in news strategy, with the development of “a whole new range of news reporting websites, blogs and perhaps social networking sites with focus on spreading information and news… People will find ways around the price in order to read the news they want to read about.” The popularity of such websites as The Huffington Post and Gawker attest to this fact.

This seems reasonable – in the same way that the internet was used to bypass the limitations of space and time, to allow global access to news, so it will also develop to bypass the limitations of wealth. For a generation that is used to getting anything it needs from the internet, this does not seem an unsurpassable challenge. The problem thus falls back into the hands of the news conglomerates applying this strategy. In the end, by instituting paywalls, they may not only fail to save print newspaper from becoming obsolete, but, rather, may accelerate that very process.