One of the many ways in which newspapers are failing online is in monetization. We have very few options, when you get down to it.
No company can really survive off donations, so the question really becomes how do we balance ads and subscriptions? Many newspapers have tried the simple tracking method of allowing people to read X number of articles before informing the reader they have to pay. Others throw up splash ads before the article is posted. And another one shows only some of the article before requiring registration.
They’re all problematic.
Users ignore the ads, they don’t register, and they walk away instead of reading. The issue for the user is that they want as few barriers as possible between themselves and the news. They want to pick an article, click the link, and read. To be inundated with ads and signup popups is annoying, and I suspect the attrition rate is abysmal.
This only gets worse when ads get ‘clever’ and make it hard to find the X to click out and get away from them. They trick users into clicking the wrong thing, which only annoys them more. Plus ads can slow things down on mobile, which is increasingly the way for things to go.
Recently I caught myself thinking that one way to encourage registrations in WordPress would be to have the post content ‘disappear’ after X days, unless the user was a member. Of course, that wouldn’t work for all sites, as not everyone wants to register on People.com. Also the old, archival news on The New York Times are things that really only the deep diving researchers (and weird net denizens) are after. Considering we can all go to the library and look everything old up on Microfiche, why do we have to pay for everything old?
So what should be limited?
How about we start with that cesspool of the internet: Comments. This is a double edged sword. If you allow open comments on a news site, consider requiring registration for them. This will allow you to more easily track and ban assholes. Sure, they can make new accounts, but in doing so you can follow them and block them. A win for everyone. Also you can track people who false-report bad people. Spam catchers will stop most bots from signing up at all.
In addition, you can turn off comments for older posts to non-paying users. After 45 days, only paid up members can comment. And make sure you don’t offer refunds if the guidelines are violated. If haters are gonna hate, make ’em pay for it.
As for what content to restrict, it has to be more granular than just time. Take an election year. All articles about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be readable. But read-only. No comments on any of them. Be realistic. Someone famous dies? Unlock all their posts so everyone can read all about them. The Olympics should have historical, important, events unlocked, but at the same time you don’t need every little detail.
This would be a tremendous amount of work, don’t get me wrong, but the days of assuming the internet is free money are long over. If we want people to pay us for content, we have to make it worthwhile.