Don't block people with a "wall"; entice premium users in.

It’s not a ‘paywall’ when it’s ‘freemium’

By Steve Outing

The word “paywall” as applied to news websites sucks. It’s a negative word. If a consumer hears that a favorite news site is putting up a “paywall,” the response is highly likely to be: avoid!

Some news-site user monetization systems truly are “paywalls.” I’m fine with saying that The Times‘ (the UK one) website has a paywall, since you can’t read anything on that site without first taking out a paid subscription — other than rare occasions when The Times drops its paywall, such as it did when the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was taking place. (As a way for a news organization to get people to pay for reading content online, The Times’ approach is perhaps the dumbest one in existence. Latest reports put its digital subscriber base at 120,000; for a paper of its stature, I’d expect that figure to be much higher with a more-intelligent digital pay model.)

Don’t block people with a “wall”; entice premium users in.

The New York Times’ website, by contrast, does not have a “paywall” (if you ask me), though a large number of writers insist on calling the site’s payment model by that term.

It’s often said that has a “porous paywall,” which is also “metered.” Translation: If you don’t want to pay for an online subscription (or a print subscription which includes full online access), you can visit the site and view up to 10 articles a month, after which you’ll have to buy a subscription for more. That’s the metered part. The porous part means that you can read more than 10 articles in a month if you click through to a article from another source that’s providing a link to it — such as a search engine (including news search engines), a blog, or a social-media site like Twitter or Facebook. Those article reads don’t count toward your free monthly article allotment if you’re not a paying subscriber. is further porous to the at-least-somewhat technically inclined. It doesn’t take much sophistication on a web browser to defeat the 10-a-month limit. If told that you’ve reached your free limit, you can continue reading NYT articles online by: 1) lopping off the last part of the article URL, after and including the question mark, and refreshing the page; 2) clearing your cookies from your browser and starting a new browser session; 3) copying the headline into a search engine to find the article, then clicking that link; 4) following on Twitter and clicking through to articles from there; or 5) setting up multiple free accounts on separate devices (laptop, tablet, smartphone) so that you can read 10 articles a month on each.

Some media experts have suggested that really is using a “donation model,” since it’s so easy to avoid paying and still read more than 10 of its articles a month. The logic goes: The people who are paying NYT’s “demanded” monthly fee actually are those who want to support Times journalism. It’s not that far removed from the NPR model of funding a serious journalism enterprise; public-radio supporters become “members,” and that’s essentially what subscribers are. That approach by the New York Times (with upward of 400,000 paying digital subscribers) appears to be working much better than The Times’ (UK) “hard paywall” model.

Perhaps I’m just getting into a semantic argument, but I think that what actually has established is a “freemium” content system. This is especially obvious on its mobile apps, but it’s also the case on the Times website.

  • smartphone app: Without paying, you can read all the articles in the Top News section, every day; every other section on the app when tapped will prompt you for payment to read articles within. But reading NYT’s selection of top stories and nothing else on the app will keep you pretty well informed — for free. If that’s not enough, you pay to upgrade: Purchase a digital subscription. That’s the freemium model. The iPad app for works the same way; the pricing is just different.
  • website: I’d argue that the website likewise uses a freemium model. If you can live with reading only 10 free articles a month from the Times, then you’re at the free level. Pay for a subscription to see’s full content and you’ve bought into its premium upgrade.

What I’d like to see do is market the “premium” access to its news content as a “membership” offer

Actually, I think that publicly calling the pay model “freemium” to an audience of news consumers is as foolish as calling it a “paywall.” Both are terms for media geeks.

What I’d like to see do — and other news sites that in growing numbers are adopting a similar model for getting online users to pay to read news — is market the “premium” access to its news content as a “membership” offer. “Become a member and read everything that the New York Times has to offer on your computer or mobile device. Non-members can read up to 10 articles a month online or read ‘Top News’ articles daily on the Times’ mobile apps.”

Then, if we can scratch the word “paywall” out of the discussion and keep it out of any and all marketing communication, we can work on making the most out of digital “memberships.” The base membership can be what’s described above: simple full access to all news content. A higher-priced membership can be that plus other benefits: discounts to physical NYT-sponsored events; free participation in online events or webinars or Google Hangouts with newsmakers and Times journalists; complementary memberships in a wine club; etc.

As more newspapers have copied the payment model on their own websites, we’ve seen a wave of coverage about this sea change. And too often, the word “paywall” gets bandied about and published in news articles. That drives me nuts, because it’s not doing newspaper websites any good.

I’ve written before that for news websites and their supplementary mobile apps, a “membership model” is the best way to go. I’d add that a “freemium” approach is inherent in the membership model (or should be). I hope that the industry might take a look again at this model for getting online and mobile-device users to pay something, and thus get newspapers away from being so dependent on online advertising revenues.

The reality is this: and any other news site that copies its user-payment model will have a large group of loyal free users (i.e., “non-members”) and a smaller group of paying users (“members”). We media geeks can look at this and understand that’s it’s an application of the “freemium” model. Consumers of news can recognize that their choice is to be a (paying) member or a non-member.

That sounds so much more amenable than “hitting the paywall.”

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!