Free news gets scarcer amid tighter paywalls

Many media groups as well as social media firms now support digital paid subscriptions

WASHINGTON • 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 organisations, amid a growing trend keeping content behind a "paywall".

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

For some analysts, the trend reflects a normalisation 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 Ms Rebecca Lieb, an analyst who follows digital media for Kaleido Insights.

Ms 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 aware of the value of journalism.

A study last year by the Media Insight Project found 53 per cent 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 journalism professor Damian Radcliffe at the University of Oregon.

"People recognise 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 organisations are unable to compete against online giants such as Google and Facebook for digital advertising, and are turning increasingly to readers.

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

Mr Doctor said some news organisations are getting close to 50 per cent of revenues from subscriptions, and he sees that rising to as much as 70 per cent.

The New York Times reported the number of paid subscribers grew to 2.6 million and that subscriptions accounted for 60 per cent of 2017 revenues. The Washington Post last year touted it had more than one 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, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

According to a study by Digital Content Next - formerly known as the Online Publishers Association - news organisations got only around 5 per cent of their digital revenues from the dominant online platforms but accounted for close to 30 per cent of the content viewed.

The paywall trend may have some other consequences by limiting national "conversations" based on shared news.

"Content that is behind a paywall does not go viral," Ms Lieb said, but noted that important news scoops can still spark national discussion.

Mr Radcliffe said with more news behind a paywall, "some people might not be able to access important content. There is a risk those audiences don't get access to the range of information and journalism they need to stay informed in the current era".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline Free news gets scarcer amid tighter paywalls. Subscribe