Thought of the Day: Newspapers Websites

I’ve posted about newspapers before, the industry’s seemingly imminent collapse and lack of success online are interesting problems to me. As far as I’m concerned, newspapers (and “old media” in general) are still a relevant source of information and there’s really no reason they should be dying.

As Erica Glasier put it on her blog the other day:

They take raw information and give it the context that years of newsgathering provides, and the clout of accuracy commiserate with the individual media org’s brand.

The Problem

I am under the impression that newspaper website are struggling to make ends meat because online ad revenue is not making up for their losses in print distribution. On top of that in their attempt to keep up with the times by added commenting functionality to their sites, they’ve degraded the experience of their online presence. Much to nobody’s surprise news site comments are often filled with trolls, bigots, spam and other meaningless drivel.

My Thought

An extremely simple solution to address these two problems would be to charge a small monthly subscription fee for access to the commenting system. Somewhere around $3 – $5 per month.

Being required to go through an ecommerce transaction should be enough to deter outright, viagra-selling-spammers who depend on bots and cheap labour to blanket the internet with spam.

But also, in theory this small fee should  discourage trolls and other nuisance commenters who are likely to register an account on a whim, if registration is free and easy. These same types of people would be very unlikely to shell out a few bucks just to spew racial slurs. In the case that a fee isn’t enough to discourage unwanted commentors, having an account tied to a credit card makes it much more easy to ban an individual; it’s quite a lot more difficult to get a new credit card number, than it is to get a new email address and register another account. Site’s like Metafilter have been using this tactic for years.

Would anyone actually pay to comment?

I’m really not sure, but I think it’s worth a shot. It’s clear that blanket paywalls don’t really work – they sort of break the internet and nobody wants to pay just to read an article similar to another one posted elsewhere for free. Blocking comments on controversial topics works to a degree, but reasonable dialogues about controversial issues are often fascinating.

I believe that every newspaper has core audience who would pay a small fee to comment.

  • Trevor Percy

    Very interesting idea. It’s worth further discussion for sure.

    I’m always interested that some people equate the demise of newspapers with that of journalism. Of course that’s false but the industry is changing very quickly.

    Hard to say whether people would pay buy eliminating ugly anonymous comments would benefit everyone.

  • Trevor Percy

    Very interesting idea. It’s worth further discussion for sure.

    I’m always interested that some people equate the demise of newspapers with that of journalism. Of course that’s false but the industry is changing very quickly.

    Hard to say whether people would pay buy eliminating ugly anonymous comments would benefit everyone.

  • Anonymous

    Oh Ryan, you’re a nut! NOBODY would pay to comment! Users would be repelled faster than you can say “paywall”.

    I have a WAY easier solution: lose anonymity. The “cost” to you is not being anonymous.

    CNN.com uses Facebook Connect. News orgs could offer Disqus or similiar, allowing Twitter login as well. If you’re logged in representing yourself, you’re going to go out of your way to express your thoughts in the most intelligent manner. Trolls and racism will evaporate.

  • @EricaGlasier Clearly you’ve never heard of the somethingawful.com forums. The guy made millions by keeping spammers out via a paywall.

    That or I’m not picking up sarcasm over the internet.

  • Anonymous

    Would you ever comment on CBC Vancouver’s site if it cost you a buck? If you were dying to leave a comment, you might do it on their Facebook page, but chances are you’d just say ‘forget it’.

    I can’t picture the news source I’d pay for (at all), never mind to comment on, with the abundance of other sources online. Why put the dreaded paywall between you and your market when there are other solutions that also have the benefit of enhanced site traffic through social sharing?

    Didn’t they invent a sarcasm icon awhile back? We need to put that into broad use 😉

  • Anonymous

    Upon more thought, the small fee would really only have to be a one-time charge to be an effective spam/troll deterrent; the monthly fee would a way for the newspaper to recoup some costs. I think every newspaper has a core audience who would pay, I don’t know how large that audience would be.

    Yes, a way easier solution would be to lose anonymity, but that doesn’t make the newspaper any extra money.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    somethingawful has a paywall…huh…

  • Anonymous

    Assuming the newspaper currentloy makes $ on display advertising (totally assuming that’s the revenue model), and they lose 90% of their readership by paywalling, then the meager subscription they’re earning won’t offset the loss of impression on the display ads.

    HOWEVER, if they invite social sharing by broadcasting it to people’s networks every time someone comments through Facebook or Twitter, exponentially more eyeballs have the chance to make their way to those ads–free advertising.

    I didn’t pull that 90% dip out of thin air–that’s the readership loss the UK’s Times & Sunday times apparently posted in Nov 2010 after 4 months of paywall. http://gigaom.com/2010/11/02/news-corp-paywall/

    The portion of the audience that wanted to pay was just over 1%.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t suggesting a paywall (that was the other Ryan N), I think paywalls are bad too. I was suggesting a pay-to-comment wall.

    You are absolutely right re: social broadcasting aspect driving more eyeballs. In my experience, there is a serious problem of diminishing returns with the way ad sales are structured. Exponential traffic growth does not result in exponential ad revenue growth (lemme know if you need me to go into more detail about that).

    My pay-to-post idea is an attempt solve the comment problem and the revenue problem with one policy.

  • Anonymous

    By paywall I meant “anything involving money that stands between a reader and reading”.

    I guess I do need more detail (I thought greater traffic = greater revenue, if impressions were the ad model)!

    If eyeballs did equal dollars, then my “be yourself” idea is also an attempt to solve comments & revenue at once. I think people would rather give up their identities than their cash.

    You’d have to be NYT-level prestige & quality to get away with charging for comments. Or the whole industry would have to do it at once to force a new standard. Somehow 😉

  • Anonymous

    The UK Times & Sunday Times put up paywalls to access the entire site, didn’t they? My proposal shouldn’t have a major impact on pageviews, beyond those views lost from visitors refreshing comments.

    Re: ad sales.
    Typically with larger ad networks, advertisers are broken down into tiers. You’ll have your top tier of advertisers who pay really well; a second tier who pay a little more poorly; maybe a few more tiers in between and then you have remnant advertisers like adwords and the more spammy stuff.
    Each advertising campaign will have a budget that translates into a given number of ad impressions. The remnant advertisers have (essentially) infinite ads to pump into your site, but they pay a lot less than the higher end advertisers.
    Ad networks structures these ad sales across their network so that no one advertiser ever buys out all of the ad impressions on a single site (unless they specifically want to do that, in which case they’ll have to pay a lot more).
    Ideally you’d never want to run out of tier 1 and 2 advertisers, but when a sites traffic is constantly growing (or if ad sales are constantly shrinking due to a shrining economy) it can become incredibly difficult to forecast how many ad impressions need to be filled in a given month. Come the end of the month your site might only be serving the low paying remnant ads.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, right. Pageviews would probably remain fairly consistent with the norm (pre-comment paywall) with some small % loss due to people ticked with the system.

    The social solution would increase the pagesviews substantially, though, so everything else being equal, that would be the way to go. Comments no so low class, more eyeballs on page. Win!

    Tks for explaining display ads!

  • Anonymous

    I guess the question remains, why aren’t newspapers (and the like) “going social” with their comments?

  • Anonymous

    Some are – CNN uses Facebook connect. Don’t forget MSM viewed SM/blogs/the internet as the enemy until recently. It takes time to make the shift.

  • Anonymous

    The New York Times uses it as well (I’m in the middle of a research project about this, lol). Over 450k readers have logged in with it to comment.