New York Times style pay wall could work in sports sections

Pay walls are nothing new to sports journalism. Since as long as I can remember, ESPN.com has always offered its Insider section. It certainly doesn't only apply to the big guys. As a Packers fan, I've seen and been annoyed by one on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. While I frequent each of these sites, I've never even considered going beyond the pay wall. The New York Times plans to offer something a little different, a model that could make sense for sports sections and other newspapers looking to earn revenue beyond what they are getting from advertising.

The Times plans to go with a metered strategy, where readers will be allowed to read a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. Here's some reasoning behind going with that over a traditional pay wall:

But with the painful declines in advertising brought on by last year's financial crisis, the argument pushed by Keller and others — that online advertising might never grow big enough to sustain the paper's high-cost, ambitious journalism — gained more weight. The view was that the Times needed to make the leap to some form of paid content and it needed to do it now. The trick would be to build a source of real revenue through online subscriptions while still being able to sell significant online advertising. The appeal of the metered model is that it charges high-volume readers while allowing casual browsers to sample articles for free, thus preserving some of the Times' online reach.

While I'm not advocating the use of a pay wall, I think there's a few reasons a metered strategy could work for sports sections if they choose to go that route.

  • It works for the casual reader. Even as an avid sports fan, I could get by only reading a couple articles on ESPN or any other newspaper's site. Under this model I could pop in, check out an article someone had sent me a link to and then be on my way. Neither I or the person sending me the article needs to worry about if I have a subscription or not.
  • I know what I'm getting. With the way traditional pay walls are set up, I have no idea what's behind them. Some newspapers will claim there's a deeper level of analysis and sometimes information normal readers aren't getting. There's no way I can know this for sure without paying. And I don't want to pay if I have no idea what I'm getting. Plus, if what's back there really was that great and vital to readers, why would they make it the most difficult to read?
  • I can pick the content I want. If I want to start with the analyis and read the AP stories elsewhere, I can. It's a pain to have the publication choose what I have to pay for and what I can get for free.
  • It builds a relationship. Creating a pay wall, of any kind, is inevitably going to alienate some readers. They may completely stop reading you. But for those who do choose to pay for an unlimited subscription, they'll be looking to get their money's worth and reading work by writers they might not have otherwise read. In doing so, they could become more connected with the paper and see it as an even bigger part of their daily routine, much like waking up to a print newspaper on one's doorstep.

In closing this out, it will be interesting to see what effects this and other metered pay walls have on journalism and how people take it in. It's very possible metered pay walls force those unwilling to pay for unlimited access to take a look at other sources. Instead of going only through traditional media, readers who wouldn't have done so before could consider what certain blogs—which will likely continue to be free—have to offer.

With the way things are going, it seems as those newspapers have to figure something out and the metered plan could be an appropriate compromise between readers and the papers they read.

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