Five ways media companies can build paywalls around people instead of content

With a few exceptions, the paywalls and subscription plans that have been erected by hundreds of newspapers and other publications over the past year share one quality — namely, they ask readers to pay a single amount for everything that is published, regardless of what those readers are interested in. What else could these publications do? Here’s one suggestion: Why not monetize individual writers? Doing do could build stronger relationships with readers that would create more long-term value, and possibly prevent some star writers from going the Andrew Sullivan route.

This might not be easy to do — especially since many media outlets seem to have their hearts (and wallets) set on paywalls as a solution — but the industry is in such dire straits at this point that almost any reasonable idea probably shouldn’t be ruled out. Some publications are betting on sponsored content, some are relying on real-world events and others are looking at affiliate links or “brand journalism.” Why not personal paywalls? (Note: We’re going to be talking about alternative monetization strategies at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17).

Why personal paywalls? Getting to know readers

I’ve tried to argue in the past that one of the biggest weaknesses of traditional paywalls or subscription plans is the undifferentiated quality they bring to a newspaper’s content: everyone hits the same wall and is asked to pay the same amount, regardless of their interests. This reinforces one of the overall weaknesses many traditional publishers have, which is that they know virtually nothing about their readers — or at least not enough to take advantage of that knowledge in any meaningful way. They are about as personalized as a street-corner newspaper box.

This is important because advertisers in particular are looking for personalized targeting, which is one of the reasons they are looking to new providers such as Facebook and Twitter for their business — those outlets can give them targeting based around an almost infinite number of variables, from income and geographic location to voting behavior. In other words, newspapers and other traditional outlets would benefit from getting to know their readers better in just about any way they possibly can.


One of those ways is to take advantage of the increasingly social nature of media in a digital age, and build monetization strategies around individuals rather than the artificial package of news and other content known as a newspaper. Many readers — particularly younger ones — consume media based not on corporate brands but on individual writers that they feel a connection to, and I would argue that is becoming the norm. We read the New York Times as much for Tom Friedman or Nick Kristof as we do because it is the NYT.

Five ways to create a personal paywall

Not all of these will apply to every writer at every publication, but many will. The overall idea is to take a lesson from the music industry in how to make money from content — the music business has spent a decade figuring out (painfully) that the songs themselves are not what people want to pay for. What they want to pay for is access to artists, both virtual and physical, and for ways of deepening that relationship. So here are some ways newspapers could take advantage of the same principle:

1) Allow readers to pay for an all-in-one package: If what readers identify with is Nick Kristof at the New York Times or Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal or Felix Salmon at Reuters, then give them a way to get that writer’s content — in whatever form — in one easy package. Maybe they blog, write news stories, do video interviews, post on Twitter, etc. Provide all of that for a fee, and make it as appealing as possible and as easy as possible for readers to find and consume it.

2) Create new forms of specialized content: Maybe your wine correspondent is the star attraction for many readers — so why not provide early access to their reviews for readers who sign up for a membership in a personal paywall plan? This is also a model that many musicians have used to their advantage, by providing early access to music (or to better quality files) for members of a fan club.

3) Host live events featuring your writers: Plenty of publications, including The Atlantic and the Texas Tribune, are looking to monetize their content by putting on events that appeal to readers. But not everything has to be a 500-person conference — why not have smaller events that cater to a more exclusive reader group, where they can listen to an interview with a prominent figure in a particular area, and then mix and mingle with other readers who share their interests?

4) Create a virtual community worth paying for: Plenty of newspapers have topic pages or even author pages, but they do little to develop a real feeling of community for readers that justifies an extra fee. This is about more than just content — it’s about providing user forums, or wiki pages about a topic that readers (who pay a membership fee) can contribute to, or a chance for a one-on-one discussion with the writer. In other words, a real community that the writer in question is a part of.

5) Provide access to your writers’ expertise: If you have a writer who has some specialized expertise, whether it’s financial analysis or political savvy or technological knowledge, why not let them provide some of their professional advice to paying customers? This would be similar to a service like Gerson Lehrman or a startup called Clarity, where people buy a specific amount of time to ask an expert questions. Some might see this as a conflict for journalists, but it doesn’t have to be if it’s handled properly.

Offer your core readers more, not less


The bottom line with all of these suggestions is to look at membership or a subscription as a way of offering your readers more than just the regular news and content that you publish — an approach similar to the “reverse paywall” model that Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Raju Narisetti and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis have both suggested in the past. This bases the monetization on a relationship with readers that is focused on rewards, not just putting up a paywall that everyone runs into after a certain number of pageviews.

Will this prevent some star writers from doing what Andrew Sullivan did and going solo? That’s not guaranteed, but if a writer sees themselves as being in partnership with the newspaper or magazine they write for — something that might even include a share of the extra revenue from the personalized-rewards model — they might be less likely to consider setting up shop on their own, especially if they saw a benefit from the marketing muscle that mainstream publications can provide.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Christian Scholtz, and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq