Is The Age Of The Free Internet Nearly Over? The rise of the newspaper paywall

When The Times went behind a paywall in 2009, it felt like both a watershed moment and a premature move at the same time. However, under increasing pressures to generate revenues out of their online properties, increasing volumes of content publishers are following the lead of The Times. We investigate if the golden age of the ‘free internet’ is now nearly over, as paid for content grows and increasing numbers of large, premium web publishers go behind the paywall
This story comes on the back of news that The Sun’s website is set to follow its stable-mate the Times’s by erecting a paywall. This comes shortly on the back of the Telegraph’s decision to limit free content to ten articles per month, meaning that three of the UKs most popular newspapers will soon be behind a paywall.


It seems that consumer attitudes have began  to swing towards acceptance of the internet paywall, which is in marked contrast to the outcry caused by the erection of The Time paywall. Back then, it was seen as an affront on the freedom of the internet, but now consumers are more accepting of the concept and thus are willing to pay for online content – even though most still choose not to.

10 months ago, only 4 percent of UK web used paid for online content, a figure which has now risen to 9 percent.  

This upwards trend is not isolated to the UK either, with other ‘advanced’ internet nations, including the USA, France and Germany seeing comparable gains.  

Interestingly, research indicates that the 25-34 male demographic are most willing to pay for online content. The inclusion of 25 year olds in this segment is of particular note because they grew up with the free web and were amongst the first generations to have a lot of exposure to the net in their formative years.  

Whether in direct response to such research, or constricting advertising budgets caused by the repressed economy, or a combination of both, it seems that 2013 is set to be the year of the newspaper paywall.

Joining The Times, Sunday Times and Financial Times, will be The Sun, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Bild and the Washington Post. The Trinity Mirror Group and Thompson Reuters, who both work heavily with online news are known to be keeping their options open too.

Driven by the rise of the tablet  

It seems that the late Steve Jobs made his mark on the newspaper industry, in a belatedly similar way that he did with music.

Apple devices are especially effective at driving app based payments, and the rise in their ownership – not to mention iPhones and smartphones – is helping to drive a paid-news model online.

Steve Jobs was of course famous, amongst many things, for the way he radically changed people’s perception towards paying for music. Taking the reigns from a Napster inspired World of free downloads, Jobs was able to persuade people to pay via iTunes. With the iPad and iBooks, he had a similar effect on books, and belatedly, it seems that he has helped newspapers too.

In a way, the iPad helped get the newspapers out of jail free. A new devices brought new user expectations and behaviours, opening up new richer news experiences which justified a charging model. The early internet decision to open their websites up for free had previously proven hard to do a 180 degree about turn on for the papers.


Reuters survey graphic


Content Type matters 

seemingly a publications ability to justify, and execute on a paywall is greatly affected by the type of content it publishers.

In short, the more specialist the content the more succesful the publication has been in installing a paid structure. Generalised news, available from many sources on many mediums has been less successful, as the lack of scarcity allows consumers to simply go elsewhere for the content.

“Public-affairs magazines are finding it easier to get the public to pay than newspapers, especially on tablets, because digital payments for magazines are becoming the norm and they offer news analysis and commentary in ways general news sources do not.” according to Reuters.


General new sites are also struggling to even get noticed by users. Seemingly, many web-based browsers are landing on web sites, reading their content and then leaving – without even noticing which site they were on.  

Reuters survey graphic


One critical element in all of this appears to be the rise of social media.  

“Heavy social media users in the UK are more likely to agree that they don’t notice which sites they are using.” according to the report. The rise of he java based browser, which keeps the user within the confines of each particular app, has an anonymizing affect, making many sites look the same. Add in that many social media users view the site on a mobile device, with the limited screen real estate meaning that sites generally lack distinctive branding on this platform anyway. The java browser encourages the user to close the page and return to the app once they have read the page in question.

So it seems like 2013 is the year when a lot of traditional big brand name publishers bite the bullet and go behind the paywall. This risky strategy can definitely work for the right specialists, but the volume of free news seems to make it a challenge for more general sites. It will be interesting to watch this space and to see if any other big names decide to make the change too.