A thought on papers, paywalls and young readers

I care a lot about the future of newspapers, as regular readers can probably tell. That’s partly because of my former life as a print journalist, partly because I find the media interesting as a business story, and partly because the 2003 book “The News About the News” – which talks about how much of of the news still originates inside papers – made a big impression on me.

I have some sympathy for the executives in charge of newspapers today, too. The media world is changing so rapidly, and in so many different ways – iPads, Facebook, HuffPo, you name it – that even a leader with the acumen of Warren Buffett would be challenged to navigate it successfully.

That’s why I can understand the intuitive appeal of a paywall to them. Readers have been paying something for the news in print for years, and digital advertising is nowhere near as lucrative as its ink-stained cousin. So why not ask them to pony up? (It sure took them long enough, as a great Onion headline pointed out: “NYTimes.com’s Plan To Charge People Money For Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move.”)

Still, one thing I wonder about is how the rise of the paywall will impact the ability of newspapers to attract their next generations of readers.

Older people who grew up with print can intuitively understand the idea of paying for the news – and also have some sense of what they’ll find inside a newspaper to help them decide if it’s worth the money. But how will younger readers know that – especially if they’re cut off from sampling it by a paywall? And with so much of what at least looks like “news” available on the Web, what will make them think a specific site is worth paying for?

“Newsonomics” author Ken Doctor made this point in a post last month. “Newspaper companies going paid,” he wrote, “are going to have to fight the inclination to focus disproportionately on transitioning their print customers to digital customers, while paying too little attention to the masses of 25-to-39-year-old potentials who never developed the print habit.”

I’ve got a lot of friends in that demographic, very few of whom have what you’d describe as a “news habit.” A handful are voracious consumers of information, reading a host of different sites, sharing links on Facebook and generally taking advantage of the breadth of content on the Web. But the majority of them don’t engage much with the news at all – certainly not to the extent that they’re going to feel the need to pay for an individual website if they feel they can get their fill on free sites, TV and radio. They’re probably the sorts of people who, years ago, would have subscribed to the local paper as much for the classifieds, coupons and movie listings as anything else; I doubt news on its own will be as tempting a proposition for them.

Then again, paywalls come in many flavors – from the “hard” paywall of The Times of London to the porous “pay fence” of The New York Times – so I think it may be possible for newspaper executives to find a smart way to tackle this challenge. I just hope it’s on their minds as they put their plans together. What do you think?

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