Google and the media paywall: Will readers pay for news?

Google and the media paywall: Will readers pay for news?

For years, the media has been experimenting with online subscriptions and paywalls as a way to make up for lost print advertising and rising costs.

Some outlets have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

But Google had used a “first click free” policy that allowed users of its search engine to bypass paywalls on news websites.

Until recently, that is, when it announced a plan to end its “first click free” policy.

The announcement was viewed as one that could help newspaper and magazine publishers boost online subscription numbers.

Burying the hatchet

Since the policy allowed readers free access to a limited amount of content on subscription-based sites, publishers say it hurt subscription growth. As a result they argued their sites were penalized in Google’s search rankings for not taking part in the program.

But now Google seems to be trying to bury the hatchet with publishers. Get ready to pay up if you’re a reader.

As someone who spent many years in newsrooms, I get this new business model of the digital age. But as a long-time consumer of news, and now as a PR consultant, I have to step back and ask: Have the paywalls and other media usage fees gone too far?

Besides paywalls, we have media companies making extra revenue from reprint fees and imposing fees to get a company's personnel announcement in a column that was previously free.

Airline fee model? Yes, but local news needs revenue

Isn’t this starting to resemble the airline model?

Yes, but on the other side of the coin, a recent piece in The Guardian notes that America’s local newspapers might be broke, but they are more vital than ever. The piece added that good journalism was happening amid cutbacks and tight budgets. “But we need people to stop expecting news to be free,” The Guardian said.

The article suggested readers go find a favorite -- and pay for it.

One thing that may be driving up the pace of online subscriptions is the Trump media bump -- since his election a number of media outlets have gained subscribers eager to read about all the machinations -- good and bad -- of his administration.

Maddow to the rescue as paywall cheerleader?

Rachel Maddow, on her MSNBC show the other day, talked about media coverage of the Russia probe, and urged her audience to support media.

“Thank you, American press corps!" Maddow said. “The only reason we know any of this at all though is because has great reporters and a great free press," she added, makinga plug -- go online and pay to get behind the paywall at your local paper.

So while no one wants to pay more for news, it keeps happening, and not just at The New York Times, WSJ and Washington Post.

A recent story in pointed out the Los Angeles Times has 105,000 online subscribers, while the Boston Globe has 90,000 and the Minneapolis Star Tribune has about 50,000 online readers.

Welcome to the present and future. How much longer will print last?

Andrew Blum is a PR consultant and media trainer and principal of AJB Communications. He has directed PR for professional services and financial services firms, NGOs, agencies and other clients. As a PR executive, and formerly as a journalist, he has been involved on both sides of the media aisle in some of the most media intensive crises of the past 25 years. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @ajbcomms

Photo via Pixabay

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