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Study: Newspaper Paywalls OK If Readers Know Their Purpose

A study from Indiana University shows readers of publications will buy into paywalls if they understand where the revenue is going.

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Photo: Dispatchdigital (Flickr)

A screenshot of the New York Times' online paywall.

An Indiana University researcher has found the public may accept paying to use newspaper websites as long as readers know and like where the cash is going.

Shahzeen Attari of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Columbia University’s Jonathan Cook surveyed 954 New York Times readers before and after the introduction of that paper’s paywall. Readers who thought the paywall was merely an effort to increase the paper’s profit margin visited the site less often, so Attari says media organizations must justify the added expense.

“Initially when people face a paywall, they will react very negatively to the paywall, this is what we found, which we called psychological reactance,” Attari says. “However, there are ways that different media can help people overcome this negative reaction, and one means that we researched is providing fair justifications.”

The Bloomington Herald-Times has made subscribers pay to access its website for years. Editor Bob Zaltsberg says revenues made from paywall are reinvested in the news enterprise.

“It goes toward salaries of our reporters and editors, as well as the people in advertising, and people who work on the press,” he says. “It also goes toward the equipment that we need, including the newsprint, which the newspapers printed at, the technology that we need to print newspapers out, so all the revenues goes together to provide the best newspaper we can provide.”

Zaltsberg also mentions the Herald-Times tries to engage its readers about the paper’s business model and does keep some content free. He says the most common complaints are from one-time visitors to the site who have an interest in a single story.

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