On Saturday, the chairman of The Spectator Andrew Neil announced that the magazine is hiring as subscriber numbers had increased to over 85,000 monthly paying readers. In the wake of media organisations like the Guardian and BBC announcing that they were cutting jobs, the fact that The Spectator’s subscriber numbers increased during the coronavirus pandemic is quite remarkable, and a sign that members of the public are willing to put their money where their mouth is and pay for journalism if they feel the publication is a good investment.
Political magazines like The Spectator and the New Statesman operate from behind a paywall, as do newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Those wanting to read new stories from these publications are required to take out a subscription, either print or digital, in order to access their content.
This trend has becoming increasingly common in the last few years.
In 2017, WIRED introduced a paywall to their online content. They managed to increase the number of new digital subscribers in the first year by nearly 300%. The New Statesman, which has been operating a subscription based model for a number of years, took the decision in 2020 to remove all network advertising from its website. Will Dunn, the managing editor of the New Statesman, wrote that the decision was made partly due to the fact that “paid for subscriptions exceeded 30,000 for the first time in 40 years” in June 2020. Essentially, they could afford to ditch the advertisers as they have revenue coming in from regular customers.
Many people like to complain about the increased commercialisation of the news media and grumble about clickbait titles but at the same time do not want to pay for the news that they consume. Back in the day, if you wanted to read the Guardian or the Daily Mail, you had to pay for it with your own money. Now, as it is easily accessible and available freely online, people are more reluctant to pay for news. People forget that it costs tremendous amounts of money for news organisations and journalists to produce quality content and investigate stories. While having a news organisation that is free to the public and funded solely through advertising is a perfectly reasonable strategy for some companies, it just isn’t viable for all.
I am not suggesting that all news organisations should operate from behind a paywall, as different media outlets work best with different models. The Guardian has generally found a good middle ground by keeping their content free but asking for voluntary donations. The BBC couldn’t possibly monetise their news website because it is a public broadcaster and should be available to all. For some, relying on advertising alone is often precarious, and so relying on a monthly subscription from loyal readers for some is a more stable way of guaranteeing revenue each month.
Paywalls tend to only work for the larger organisations, as readers often like to read articles from journalists which they feel are established and in the know. Nobody will pay if nobody knows who you are. That is why that many buy a digital copy of The Spectator. They want to hear James Forsyth’s insight into the Conservative Party, as he is particularly knowledgeable on that issue. It is the same reason why so many people buy a digital subscription to the Sunday Times. For many, they find Tim Shipman’s political analysis of Westminster invaluable and feel he gives an insight into British politics that no other correspondent can.
Paywalls are frowned upon by some. Writing in Quartz, which ironically erected a paywall itself a year after his article was published, Rob Howard argues that paywalls are a “fundamentally flawed business model”, in part because “80% of current-event news is interchangeable, regardless of your source”. This misses the point. As mentioned earlier, paywalls are effective for some of the most reputable news organisations because people enjoy reading particular writers. Yes, they may all be discussing similar issues, but many are willing to pay extra to read their favourite columnists who exclusively writes for a certain paper. In the same way that you may choose to watch BBC News over ITV News as you prefer Huw Edwards to Tom Bradbury, the writers that news organisations employ are critically important and one of the main reasons why people choose one outlet over another. Readers enjoy reading certain columnists and will happily pay for access if the content is good enough.
Paywalls aren’t perfect and there are certainly problems with using one. Many potential readers from a poorer background may not have the disposable income to spend on often expensive, quality journalism that the likes of the Wall Street Journal or The Times provide. This issue could be addressed by some of these organisations and I would welcome it. Perhaps they could launch a discounted rate for these disadvantaged groups? That could potentially widen the accessibility of quality journalism to more people, rather than inadvertently limit it to a more privileged minority.
Ultimately, while a paywall is not suited for every media organisation, The Spectator’s recent success is encouraging. It shows that readers are willing to pay for content that they enjoy and shows there are different models from which media organisations can obtain funding rather than relying solely on advertisers.