To paywall or not? Young readers provide the answer

A few years ago, while preparing to teach a copy editing course for the first time, I stumbled across a hidden gem in The New York Times digital edition: Copy Edit This!, an interactive quiz that tests readers on grammar and word usage errors from recent Times articles.

The Times’s standards editor catches the errors and then explains why they are wrong. Here is an example from installment No. 1: “The trial has suggested that corruption in Mexico is as bad, if not worse, than many thought.” The problem, according to Editor Philip B. Corbett is that “as bad” needs another “as,” which readers learn as they click on a word in the quiz to see what’s wrong with it. To be correct, it should read “as bad as.”

In my class, which I teach online, I split the students into copy desks to work together on a different quiz each week. It is a feature of the course they seem generally to like.

(Photo by Febe Roels Via Flickr)

But a few weeks ago, a student reached out to let me know that they could not access the quiz through our college’s library database, which they had been able to do in the past. It turns out that we no longer offer students access to the digital version of the New York Times. The library asked for it in its budget but was denied because Columbia College Chicago, like many other tuition-dependent institutions in higher education, is facing a mounting deficit, in part, resulting from declining enrollment.

I immediately contacted my fellow journalism faculty colleagues, irate that we had lost access to the copy editing quiz and all of the multimedia elements that are part of the digital edition of the Times. I also implored my students to purchase a subscription, which for them, at a student discount, would amount to one fancy coffee drink per month. Few of them agreed, after the fact, so without access, I eliminated the quiz from the course. 

Although this anecdote says much about the state of journalism education, as part of higher education in general, it really for me is illustrative of the larger problem we face within our industry. It is incredibly difficult to get people to pay for news, for quality features, even as we continue to invest in them. I find it telling, and sobering, that we cannot even convince future journalists to pay as consumers, even as they expect to be fairly compensated to produce news after they graduate. 

In the United States, only 21 percent of respondents to the 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News report paid for news. 

In May, the Nieman Lab looked at why that was, drawing on a scholarly article by Danish researcher Tim Groot Kormelink. The analysis is interesting, noting factors such as cost and whether or not they actually follow up after subscribing, but it didn’t offer clearly defined resolution. There were no lightbulbs.

But other studies have suggested that young readers may be willing to pay for a news subscription if the price is lower. 

Many news outlets use deals to lure readers and then sock them with a price increase. This increase can often be negotiated down by calling and complaining. But really, that is not a relationship built on trust. 

Gateway Journalism Review is not behind a paywall, and we are no longer sharing content in our digital newsletter that requires a subscription to a particular news outlet. I fundamentally believe that news cannot be behind a paywall. Many people simply will move on. We can lament that we did this to ourselves in the early days of delivering content online. We can lament that we still have not figured out a profitable model to replace the classified ads that kept us afloat. We can continue to charge a premium to some readers willing or with the means to pay, further dividing our communities between the informed and the uniformed. 

The attraction of nonprofit news organizations is that they don’t have to figure this out except that they also have to figure this out. Whether through donations, grant funding or private investment, it still costs to produce quality news, and someone pays when it’s not the reader or viewer.

Frankly, I believe that the membership model, or the “freemium model,” is the one in which we should embrace. GJR will be launching such a model next year for our print subscribers, following the lead of digital news successes like Axios. The Chicago Sun-Times just this week announced that it was eliminating its digital paywall.

A hard paywall keeps people out. A soft paywall keeps people engaged until they run out of free articles. A membership model allows us to embrace branded and premium content for certain subscribers while continuing to preach the very real ideals about journalism and our vital role in protecting democracy, of being watchdogs of giving people accurate and responsible content that they need. 

Public radio through its pledge drives connects journalists with donors, something more news organizations should do. When I get a solicitation from Leila Fadel, the host of Morning Edition for NPR, when I read her personal story and commitment to journalism, I’m instantly connected. Newspapers do that less, preferring to keep journalists away from the unsavory side of the business, even though that side is what actually keeps us in business. We can do more to make the business of news personal for our readers at the most local level.

In the end I can certainly force my students to pay for a New York Times digital subscription but that doesn’t change the fundamental problem that they are part of a public that doesn’t want to pay for quality news. After all, their college has already sent them a powerful message about the value.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

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