A paywall, done right, can be seen as essentially free money. You set the meter high enough to not impact your pageviews and uniques and get whatever you can from your core readers.
The Guardian’s Katharine Viner the other day eloquently made the case for the transformative power of open journalism and against paywalls. The philosophical discussion is one for another day, but I’d only say here that the question is not nearly as binary as many seem to believe.
One reason we’re inclined to like metered subscription models—all else being equal—is that they debunk the annoying and now disproved idea that journalism has no value in the marketplace. And they provide incentives for quality that click-chasing models, those based on sheer volume of posts and traffic, do not.
We were adamant, for instance, that The Washington Post needed one because its digital revenue had been flatlining for years at relatively low levels. With digital ad rates continuing to decline, asking online readers to contribute was an obvious move, especially since experience has shown the loss of traffic and digital ad revenue is not really material.
The Guardian has its own reason for eschewing paywalls. One is practical: the BBC employs thousands of journalists and is free. Why, then, would people pay for the Guardian? Another is ideological, and not in a pejorative sense. “Open journalism” is just part of the Guardian’s, and the Trust’s, ethos, part of their identity. It’s hard not to respect that.
A third reason is that, unlike at other places, digital revenue is actually growing and growing at a respectable pace—from £37.4 million in fiscal 2011 to £55 million in 2013, a rise of nearly 50 percent in two years, accelerating to 28 percent in the last year alone, eclipsing the decline in print revenue.
The Trust’s executives are pleased with the direction of the company, and this is understandable. This dame here, Dame Amelia Fawcett DBE, chair of the GMG, says:
At Group level, we were pleased to convert last year’s loss into a profit before tax, while EBITA also improved. This is due in no small part to the success of our transformation plan, as we continue to map our way towards the digital future.
And this, uh, gent, Miller says:
The financial impact of our digital-first strategy, launched two years ago, is clearly demonstrated in our performance in 2012/13. A sharp increase in the contribution of our digital operations to revenue was a striking feature, enabling a modest increase in overall Group revenues. Having committed to digital earlier than our peers, we are now reaping the benefits.
Digital revenue, importantly, includes some subscription income via apps for phones and tablets.
Hey, if you assume similar growth for the next few years, you are looking, dames and knights, at a fairy tale ending—total revenue actually rising:
All we can do is root for that kind of growth to continue but, also, to recognize it’s very, very unlikely. For one thing, it’s just harder to achieve that kind of growth off of a larger base. Even the Times’s vaunted digital subscription growth eventually fell to earth and stabilized. Betting the Guardian on growth continuing at that rate is folly.
The stakes are quite large. The Guardian is formidable today precisely because of those 583 journalists and 150 digital developers. There is no free online-only news organization anything close to that size. The Group is already taking £25 million out of the organization in cost savings, and that’s fine. But obviously cutting alone is not the answer.
So, no paywall? Sure. Let it ride, for now.
But realistically, chances are that within the next few years, digital growth will level off while the print side continues its steady decline. Not that I want this. Just that that’s what’s likely to happen.
At that point, if the goal is still to get the losses into the low-teens, it will be time to turn to readers for help, as they already are on tablets and phones.
As the Lord Protector might say, trust in open journalism, but keep your powder dry.