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The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

A Pay Wall? That’s Just Dumb

Pay walls in the websites of US print media drive me nuts.  Rupert Murdoch built his media empire on the ability to make money in newspapers when everyone else was losing it.  The Wall Street Journal may have pioneered the practice of erecting pay walls to protect content in the US, but Murdoch has systematically applied it to his properties and provided “cover” for the likes of the New York Times or the Washington Post to do the same. This, to me, is short-sighted.  I am now restricted to 10 “free” articles on nytimes.com before the dreaded black shadow descends and blocks my reading.  When this happens, I go elsewhere to find the coverage.  I used to have the New York Times website as my home page.  Now I have four sites that launch as my home pages.  I scan the New York Times’ front page and then dig into the stories on one of the other three sites.  I am evidently not the only one who does this.  One of my other sites is the Guardian newspaper in the UK.  When I visit that site, it automatically loads its US version of the news.  The Speigel website in Germany automatically loads its English version.   The BBC has a site dedicated to world news and analysis, where I can get a US perspective on all the major international stories, as well as many of the most newsworthy domestic US stories.

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So these foreign websites are attracting and catering to US readers who are blocked or rationed by pay wall practices.  This is why I think pay walls are dumb.  During my routine visits to the New York Times site, I subscribed to and purchased from its Wine Club. I bought jewelry gifts by clicking through Tiffany ads and clothing gifts via Neiman Marcus ads.  These are typically three- and sometimes four-figure transactions.  Yet the affiliate revenue they generate will dry up as the “free” New York Times content I am allowed to access shrinks.  (The original “ration” was 20 articles.  It’s currently 10.  How soon will it be five or zero?)

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The foreign news sites work ever harder to accommodate people like me, and as they do my time spent on their sites grows accordingly.  Advertisers follow eyeballs, and I already see “behaviorally targeted ads” appear on these foreign sites.  Visits to the US sites for Golfsmith, OpinionLab, and Lane Bryant, for example, have all triggered ads for me on the Guardian website.  So it’s not as if US advertisers lose me when I venture abroad online.  They follow me instantly, and make it just as easy for me to make “impulse” purchases from US brands by presenting banner ads on foreign sites.  For someone like me, I suspect the affiliate revenue would be considerably higher than subscription revenue, so why do the New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, and every other “serious” newspaper look for short-term subscription revenue at the expense of long-term transaction revenue?  Foreign news sites would appear to be laughing all the way to the bank.

–Roger Beynon, CSO, Usability Sciences

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