Tue, Feb 27, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Free online news gets scarcer as paywalls tighten


For those looking for free news online, the search is becoming harder.

Tougher restrictions on online content have boosted digital paid subscriptions at many news organizations amid a growing trend to keep content behind a paywall.

Free news has by no means disappeared, but recent moves by media groups and Facebook Inc, and Google supporting paid subscriptions is forcing free-riders to scramble.

For some analysts, the trend reflects a normalization of a situation that has existed since the early Internet days that enabled consumers to get accustomed to the notion of free online content.

“I think there is a definite trend for people to start paying for at least one news source,” said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst who follows digital media for Kaleido Insights.

Lieb said consumers have become more amenable to paying for digital services and that investigative reporting on politics in Washington and elsewhere has made consumers more aware of the value of journalism.

A study last year by the Media Insight Project found that 53 percent of Americans have paid for at least one news subscription.

A separate report by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute found two-thirds of European newspapers used a pay model.

“Services like Netflix and Spotify have helped people get into the habit of paying for digital content they used to get for free,” said Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “People recognize that if you value journalism, especially in the current political climate, you need to pay for it.”

Newspapers seeking to make a transition from print to digital have found it difficult to replace the advertising revenues that were long the staple of the publications.

News organizations are unable to compete against giants such as Google and Facebook for digital advertising, and are turning increasingly to readers.

“For large-scale news organizations, whether they are national or regional, that want to have a large reporting staff, reader revenue needs to be the No. 1 source,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and consultant who writes the Newsonomics blog.

Doctor said some news organizations are getting close to 50 percent of their revenue from subscriptions and he sees that rising to as much as 70 percent.

The New York Times has reported that its number of paid subscribers grew to 2.6 million and that subscriptions accounted for 60 percent of last year’s revenue.

The Washington Post last year said that it had more than 1 million paid digital readers.

Not surprisingly, the Times and Post have both tightened their online paywalls by limiting the number of free articles available.

Similar moves have been made at the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

While well-known national publications might be able to navigate digital pay models, it would be harder for smaller, regional and local news organizations on slimmer budgets, Radcliffe said.

“Smaller local organizations might find it harder to make their case to readers [to pay] and they have a smaller pool of customers,” Radcliffe said.

Facebook and Google recently agreed to help support paywalls for news organizations on their platforms, while Apple Inc agreed to waive its commission for subscription sign-ups from the big social network on its devices.

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