Dallas Morning News Abandons Paywall

For years, daily news publications have struggled. As the market flooded with broadcast outlets and the Internet rendered news essentially free to anyone who wanted to read, many newspapers simply became unsustainable. But the real killer was Craigslist, which destroyed classified advertising, the bread-and-butter income of daily newspapers. Some have gone to entirely digital formats, a mere shell of their former selves. Some have shuttered altogether. Others, like the local daily and others, have chosen to implement a paywall, charging for portions of their content.

The Dallas Morning News was one of the first, giving subscribers access to all of its content online while everyone else got only a percentage dating all the way back to early 2011. This week, the paper abandoned its paywall, again placing all newspaper content online for free and saying in a press release it was looking at "another approach," some kind of digital premium service that has yet to be unveiled.

The choice is the result of research among subscribers. The News found that even if the charge for digital was 90 percent less than a subscription to the print version of the paper, subscribers still wouldn't choose digital over print. The lesson here is that people who enjoy the tactile experience of reading a paper won't change easily.

This is not substantially different from the world of books where, despite the fact that costs are exceptionally low for hand-held reader devices, the majority of people still prefer hard copies. But with books, the content doesn't change. Newspapers have to reach people quickly with breaking news and the like, so digital content is essential.

The News didn't mention the demographics of subscribers, but I'd be willing to bet the vast majority are over 35. People who grew up with newspapers are going to be less likely to give them up than those who grew up with digital content at their fingertips. Eventually, the crushing weight of print costs will drive most daily print publications entirely online, but we clearly aren't there yet.

Closer to home, the Chronicle also has a paywall, though it was launched much more recently. The paper also has a new editor, so it will be interesting to see if the paywall survives. Very few have. The few that have, like The New York Times, have been for papers that are widely read, often in places where the digital content is simply more convenient than getting the physical publication. The NYT also utilizes a unique system that tracks users and gives them access to a certain amount of content monthly before forcing them to pay.

Unfortunately, newspapers are suffering because of their own lack of foresight. When the Internet first emerged, most of them simply threw their content online assuming that most people would continue to opt for the print edition. That strategy obviously backfired.

One apt comparison I read was between subscribing to the paper and text messaging. Sending a text message costs cellular providers almost nothing, yet from the beginning, they charged users to do it. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was something. We all just got used to paying an additional amount every month so we could send texts, and the use of them has only grown in popularity, allowing cell companies to continue to monetize that service.

Newspapers could have restricted their content online to subscribers or at least to people willing to pay a small amount monthly to read it. Over time, we all would have gotten used to paying for content. Sure, breaking news and the like probably would have gone online for free, but no one would have blinked at paying a few bucks a month to read the sports section every day.

But here we are and dailies are scrambling to find new and innovative ways to generate revenue. What's next for the Dallas Morning News is a mystery, but we know now that the paywall experiment failed for them. Could others, like the Houston Chronicle, be far behind?

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