Will paywalls decrease traffic on news sites?

It’s no news that media companies are struggling with the rapid decline of the current print model. This morning I read an article by Mathew Ingram The ‘hamster wheel’ fallacy: why paywalls don’t mean better journalism. It got me thinking about how I reached my “maximum” allowable views of the Ottawa Citizen news site this month, and how I will not become an online subscriber any time soon.

As a PR professional, I consult several news sites on a daily basis: The Globe and Mail, CBC news, the NY Times, Forbes, Reuters, Radio Canada, Fast Company, just to name a few. I have a subscription to the NY Times, since they have a paywall, and I find their news indispensable. However, if other news sites were to put up a paywall, I certainly would not purchase a subscription to multiple news sites. A customer is therefore forced to choose – and I am choosing the Times over the Citizen, since I can get my local news elsewhere. This led me to wonder what others will do when faced with paywalls on multiple sites where they have become loyal readers. Will they subscribe to them all? (Doubtful!) Or will they be forced to choose? It will be interesting to see the impact paywalls will have on news site traffic…

I love Forbes model. Forbes has remarkably moved away from its traditional news site to become a top notch digital-first medium. In the article Inside Forbes: We’re Breaking Free of the Time Warp the News Industry Is Trapped In, author Lewis DVorkin chronicles Forbes’ two-year journey from the traditional one-to-many world of journalism to an inclusive, social and navigable model. They now have over 1000 “content creators,” consisting of freelancers, academics, experts, business leaders and Forbes staffers, who each work to create a following either on Forbes.com or on Facebook. Overseeing their communities and interacting with followers is a part of their job, and the site is built to allow for this type of interaction as a result of its social layer. Dvorkin states, “In all our actions, we’ve placed our confidence in the individual — to create expert content and assume accountability for it; to become welcome participants in the news process; and to act as enthusiastic agents who share and distribute our content.” WOW. As a result of its revolutionary site Forbes.com’s traffic has doubled over the past year.

This is the type of model that Canadian publications should pursue: one that focuses on building a relationship with their readers. In another article, Mathew Ingram emphasizes that focusing on this relationship can lead to monetization, and that in lieu of putting up paywalls news sites should consider different ways of rewarding their most loyal customers for engagement. Canadian publications that currently lag in terms of innovation should learn from sites like Forbes and Bloomberg by examining the steps they took to arrive at the interactive models they have today.

It will become increasingly important to embrace change and rapidly develop multiple strategies to deal with the dynamic landscape and test these strategies withreaders, or better yet, participants.

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