How Paywalls Prevent News Scoops

I have just read my nth story about how newspaper/newsmagazine companies are trying to adapt to the digital world, and as usual, there was discussion of the metered model that allows non-subscribers to read a certain number of stories per month for free before hitting a paywall. After that you pay or you don't read. Maybe.

There are a couple of points to be made about the metered model that I have yet to see addressed by newspaper execs, all of whom seem to put very brave faces on their digital futures. But there is no mistaking the abject fear in their voices for sincerity.

I have yet to be totally prevented from seeing a story behind a paywall from a publication or Web site that I don't subscribe to. Most of the time, you just have to Google the headline and up comes a version. Probably not on the parent Web site, but nonetheless, the whole story has been scrapped and made available elsewhere.

Or if you ask enough friends, one or more will be happy to send you stories that they have access to and you don't. I also know folks who exchange sign-on passwords, which seem to work just fine (I am told). And if you are willing to wait, most stories emerge from behind paywalls eventually, since publishers realize that they are sacrificing an enormous amount of traffic by keeping their best stuff in a permanent vault.



But paywalls also have an effect on which journalists get scoops and which don't. I have a number of clients who have redirected truly breaking news away from sites with paywalls because they know those sites limit the exposure sought in placing the stories.

Saying this is perhaps putting one's head in the lion's mouth, since journalists SWEAR they can live and work very comfortably without any input from inbound sources (or their PR reps) -- but we all know this to be nonsense. Yes, reporters can do without misguided or utterly self-serving pitches -- as Bob Garfield not so gently pointed out in his column this week -- but they depend on sources (including -- god forbid -- PR reps) for tips on what might break next. One wonders if journalists whose stuff is behind paywalls know they are at a severe disadvantage -- often last in line for a hot tip.

But perhaps breaking news is no longer the point. Traditional media execs look at pure-play link baiters like BuzzFeed and drool at their traffic and interplay on social media, then scoff that without VC money these link-baiters could not survive. Hmmm, they used to say that about Vice, too. Meanwhile, they edge their own publications closer to link-baiting with moronically shorter postings with classic link bait headlines like "5 Things You...." Nevertheless, their bread and butter is breaking news -- and thanks to paywalls, they aren’t always getting it.

2 comments about "How Paywalls Prevent News Scoops".
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  1. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, April 2, 2015 at 7:31 p.m.

    You're right! Rarely see scoops nowadays on NYTimes or WashPost. And it's too easy to get past the paywall, so what's the point? I sneak into museums, theaters and movies all the time, too, despite the paywalls they use. Or I borrow a friend's pass and walk right in. Call me a cheapskate or freeloader, but I think the "content" behind all of these paywalls ought to be free. Even on opening night!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 3, 2015 at 12:24 p.m.

    William, when you are expecting a check to work you have done, don't worry about it. People have snuck in to take pieces of it so you will be missing some money. NOTHING is free. Freedom is not free. (Note: I once had a roommate who thought that. She lasted just about a month and her parents came to take her to a facility. True.)

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