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10, 15 free web articles a month: Is this a mistake? (Yes!)

By Steve Outing

I think it’s safe to say that what Walter Isaacson and Steven Brill started — a wave of newspaper websites putting up “metered paywalls” where there’s a subscription or membership fee required for site visitors who want to read more than X number of articles per month — has taken hold in a big way.

It’s not yet that a majority of newspaper websites have adopted this model, but more and more keep announcing just that. The latest: the San Diego U-T (formerly known as the Union-Tribune). The trend has spread to Australian newspapers.

It’s often said that newspaper publishers act like sheep, and that’s clearly the case with “going paid” online. Nearly all the announcements are for programs that mimic’s “metered paywall” model, where for newspaper websites, users can view 10 or 15 or sometimes 20 articles per month without needing to be paying subscribers or members. Most, too, make their walls “leaky”; e.g., you can just type a headline into a search engine and view a story, even if you’ve bumped past the free-article limit, because you’re coming into the news site from an external source.

Umm, did anyone think that maybe this “X free articles per month” model is not the best one?! Or did everyone just go into sheep mode?

A modest alternative proposal

How about this as an alternative for newspapers that wish to get some portion of their online audience to pay for reading their content:

  • Instead of 10 or 15 or whatever “free reads” per month for non-subscribers, make the top 10 (or pick another number) articles of the day free to view for non-subscribers.
  • Mix up that selection each day. A columnist who has a great piece one day would be in the free top 10, but not regularly. A review of a blockbuster movie or even a great recipe story might be in a day’s top 10 free reads, but reviews and food stories wouldn’t be included often.

Of course, you’ll notice that I’m suggesting that news website publishers “give away” a lot more content than they do following the “sheep model.” Ten free reads a day: about 300 articles a month; five free a day: 150. It’s nowhere near as skimpy as 10 or 15 articles a month which has become the norm.

Oh well, does everyone really need to know what’s happening in Syria, or that the City Council banned drinking diet sodas in public parks?

The other major difference is that with the sheep model, the non-paying user gets to select what articles to read. He/she might use up the monthly free allotment on coverage of Justin Bieber and the Kardashians, or local stories about bears in garbage cans and drunken co-eds invading people’s houses. (The latter is for real here in Boulder, Colorado; this spring a drunken female student got shot when she stumbled her way into an occupied bedroom where the homeowner kept a loaded gun next to the bed. Yes, she survived.) Oh well, does everyone really need to know what’s happening in Syria, or that the City Council banned drinking diet sodas in public parks?

What I’m suggesting is putting editors back in the driver’s seat (to a degree), by selecting the best 10 (or pick your number) articles or other news content of the day for non-paying website users. The advantage is pretty obvious: Non-paying readers of a newspaper website will be reasonably well informed about the most significant things going on in their communities.

While running a newspaper (and a news website) is a business in most cases, newspapers continue to have a public-service role. I will argue that keeping all of the community’s citizens informed — including those who will never pay a newspaper company a dime — is a good thing. The sheep paywall model doesn’t do that anywhere near as well.

A better bottom line?

What about attracting non-subscribers to start paying for news? I think this model can work, though someone heading a newspaper will have to wake up from sheep mode and give it a try. (Sharp readers will know that the “top stories of the day are free” model already is in practice on the New York Times’ smartphone and tablet apps — but not on the Times’ website.)

Are you sheep, following the (apparently successful) lead of Or can you think and act for yourselves?

We can think of the top 10 free articles a day as a marketing technique for a paid digital subscription or membership. If the free web reader enjoys a stellar columnist but only gets to read her work once every couple of weeks or so, that’s incentive to pay for a digital subscription or membership. If a newspaper website has particularly good, say, technology or automotive news coverage, and an online reader only sees the occasional tech or auto story when it makes it into the daily top 10, that’s significant incentive to pay for full access to the news site’s complete content.

Will the model I’m promoting here result in more people deciding that reading the top 10 news articles a day selected by a newspaper website’s editors, without having to pay anything, is enough, so they won’t upgrade to a full-access digital subscription or membership? I don’t have data to back it up, but my educated guess is that if “X” in “X articles per day selected by our editors” is the right number, this model will do at least as well at growing paid digital subscriptions/memberships as the “10 (or 15 or 20) articles per month” sheep model. I’ll place my money on it doing better at enticing more news-website readers to upgrade to paid subscriptions or memberships.

And if I’m right, then citizens in newspapers’ communities will be better informed, even if they choose not to pay for digital news access, and/or print-edition delivery.

So, newspaper publishers: Do you care about news knowledge and news literacy among the citizens of the community you serve? Are you sheep, following the (apparently successful) lead of Or can you think and act for yourselves?

Can you try something different, if it makes more sense in the grand scheme of things?

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!