We have run into Paywalls

19 November 2021, By Canela

As we anticipated, in recent months almost all of the national newspapers in Spain (and also some specialised publications) have incorporated “paywalls”, that is, subscription systems to access their content. They are using a model that has been in operation in other countries for a long time, but… is this new model really working?

Types of subscription models

The term “paywall” encompasses a series of business models that require payment (one-off or recurring) to access content. This system has been adopted by many media due to the tough competition for digital advertising, since most of the investment goes to search engines and social networks.

The main types of paywalls are:

  • Subscription: also known as a “rigid wall”, it requires a payment to access any content on the medium.
  • Reading limit: sometimes called “soft wall” which allows you to view a specified number of articles without having to pay.
  • Dynamic or freemium: offers free access to some basic content, while higher quality content is paid.
  • One-off: allows you to pay to access a specific news item or issue.

The strictest paywalls have not been received well and have resulted in a decline in audience so the model that is becoming more widespread is that of allowing access to a limited number of content per month.

Paywalls in other countries

Paywalls were born in the United States in 1996. The Wall Street Journal pioneered a subscription to access all its content, which it continues to maintain fifteen years later (it has 3.2 million subscribers). In the following years, most of the competitors followed the same footsteps. USA Today, the last major national newspaper to resist, announced this summer that it was launching a digital subscription model to access its content.

At international level, research carried out by Reuters in 2019 in seven countries indicated that 69% of newspapers had some payment system to access content. UK newspapers are the ones that charge the highest rates (up to € 22 per month), while in Germany three out of four media outlets opt for a freemium model, and in France newspapers like Le Monde have around 200,000 digital subscribers.


Paywalls in Spain and Portugal

In Spain, despite some previous experiments, payment walls did not become generally known until 2020. It was not until then that El País launched its soft-type paywall which has allowed it to be the first Spanish media to exceed 100,000 paying subscribers, followed by El Mundo, with 80,000 digital subscribers. All the major newspapers have imitated the model, with La Vanguardia and ABC being the last to implement these kind of paywalls. Paywalls are also reaching the regional media and the specialised press.

In Portugal, Público has been charging for accessing part of its contents since 2006. However, it was not until 2020 that this model became widespread among the country’s large newspapers. Newspapers like Expresso have seen their digital subscriptions grow 53% in the last year. This has been helped by the fact that Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the social institution that manages lotteries in Portugal, launched an initiative to finance 20,000 subscriptions to eight media (seven generalists and one sports).

Conclusion: the walls are here to stay

Most of paywall experiences carried out in the past, both in Spain and Portugal and in other countries, failed due to the collapse of online audiences when they were required to pay for access to content. However, something seems to have changed in media strategies and in the mindset of consumers. This change began in the most advanced countries, such as the United States or northern Europe, but it is spreading around the world.

It is possible that this change in trend was influenced by some phenomena, such as the generalization of video-on-demand platforms, the explosion of digital media consumption caused by the pandemic or the growing rejection of users of online advertising. Paying for quality content is no longer so strange. If this was applied with television… why not also with the press? Therefore, paywalls seem to be here to stay and the era of “free everything” on the Internet is behind us.

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