Key takeaways

  • Paywalls are being heralded as the solution to publishers’ revenue problems, giving little thought to the impact on increasingly opportunistic consumers
  • Consumers seek the path of least friction and will seek free versions of news content through simple web searches, social media and ‘specialist’ aggregators
  • A news marketplace would be best created through aggregation, to exploit both opportunities uncovered through news sharing and the value of impressions

The barriers that block users from accessing content on websites, paywalls have become an increasingly popular way in which news and media businesses are monetising their content. With Fairfax recently announcing paywalls for its online sites The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, I question whether this is the correct strategy in terms of consumer impact and commercialisation of content.

The reader’s perspective

User behaviour is not predictable and in many ways consumers (in this case, readers) are like water; they follow the path of least resistance.  What most readers will do is take the headline or story excerpt and copy and paste it back into a search engine, which will find the article published elsewhere without the paywall.

Where once readers cared about a specific journalist’s take on news, this preference is now surpassed by citizen journalism which has become increasingly pervasive. Obviously, some content relies on facts but there is a good deal of news which can be conveyed through various digital means. As a social society, in-depth news features and exposés are often reduced to ‘digital word-of-mouth’ comments (through channels such as  Twitter) and ‘specialised’ aggregated content sites and blogs, which not only offer the facts but take a decisive stance on issues. 

With a large collection of major publishers now employing the same paywall strategy, they are only creating more opportunities for these alternative sites to gain traction.

News aggregators: Frenemies?

Many news organisations like the Huffington Post survive by aggregating news and adding more features, making news more social. Traditional news organisations have done the same thing but haven’t implemented social utilities that well. The point is that aggregators live and die by aggregating other news organisations’ content and work harder to get better traffic on an individual piece of content than the originator of that piece of news does.

Aggregators are usually better at SEO, facilitating sharing and distribution of links via sites such as Reddit, Digg and others. So if an aggregator is grabbing content to attract users and in turn making money by selling the impressions, why not facilitate the use of this content and share in the revenue?

The future: A news marketplace?

News is content. Photos are content. Video is content. Audio is content. So why focus on an access model when you could build a business on syndicating your content via a ‘timed container?’ Here is how it would work:

  1. You set up all your content as separate unique objects in a database.
  2. Publishers utilise the content via a self – service interface. They search for an event, name or date and are given a choice of text, photos, video or audio. They decide which pieces they want and for how long and they are given a string of code to place in their site.
  3. The content then appears in the site, powered by the source of the content and the publisher either:
    • Pays for the content
    • Shares revenue made from the content; or 
    • Allows the source’s ads to be shown within the content.

In either of three scenarios, the source gets paid and the consumer is never blocked from content in a manner which causes them to find workarounds. The system can even allow individuals to upload content and share the revenue with the system when a third party ‘licences’ the content.

The source news publisher must have a business development function in order to get the best value from the distribution of their content, but in time they will likely make more money from distributing small pieces of content with varied business models on each than they would from subscriptions, which would be reducing over time in any case.  This system also allows them to make money from archived material and from third parties publishing content…. a news marketplace.


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Anthony Mittelmark

With over 20 years of enterprise grade digital and consulting experience, he possesses a combination of commercial acumen and technical know-how, to deliver projects from concept to delivery while maintaining the critical ability to evolve rapidly.

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