4 minute read.

Content paywall history

The Internet has changed a lot for publishers. Publishers realise they have to adapt to the laws of the internet where the traditional revenue models are bringing in less money on the one hand, but offer plenty of new opportunities on the other.

About 10 years ago, almost every publisher was looking for a solution to generate online income. Publishers choose to implement a paywall on their website, to generate revenue with online publishing. Although paywalls are mainly emerging at that time, the phenomenon is much older. Microsoft had the first paywall in 1996 with “Slate” magazine. A year later, The Wall Street Journal became the first newspaper to charge for access to its articles. While other publishers, including the New York Times, are building paywalls, “Slate” is breaking down its paywall after a few years: the number of paid subscriptions is not in proportion to the total number of readers. And so it goes on and off for a number of years.

This is what you need for a content paywall that works


The software is not a building block, but facilitates the construction process. Unfortunately I have seen many examples where software was first built that was then not usable. That is not the correct order.

Building block: Content

Gabe Weisert, writer at Zuora, identified 5 strategies for ‘newspaper readership growth’.

  • You can’t compete with social media, so bring perspectives, arguments and entertainment readers can’t find anywhere else;
  • Use data scientist to study online reading habits to improve conversion rates;
  • Bundle additional services;
  • Move from advertising to content;
  • Give readers access to live events.

Of course the ideal situation is maintaining offline print subscriptions in combination with online paying user growth. You can get there by generating premium content to insert in the newspaper and put that behind the content paywall. You will meet less competition from other media, and can partner up with events if you make online content local. Give your efforts some time. You will have to learn from your online visitors, to understand their behaviour and needs.

Building block: Audience

Many people see articles not as the outcome of hard work, but as information that has always been there.  It takes time to change the perception. The metered paywall is the result of years of trial and error. Metered paywalls give users the opportunity the read a couple of articles for free (freemium model). Tough readers will have no problem paying the subscription, while casual readers will not pay for content, but bring in the advertising revenue. A hard paywall (all content behind the wall), only works for publishers that produce really unique content, that cannot be found anywhere else. Think of content that is made for niches, such as medical specialists and lawyers.

Building block: Creator

It needs a professional to dig up the info, arrange it and make it into a good story. Sometimes the professional himself seems to forget that. One of the reasons that copyrights are infringed on a massive scale, is that content creators are not careful with it as well. It’s striking to see that a lot of journalists still think copying is allowed when a citation is placed next to the copy. In addition, not every creator can appreciate that his work is locked. Finally, it is important that the content paywall is taken into account in the agreement with the creator. I myself have had a case in which a freelancer took a firm approach to a newspaper and demanded and received additional compensation. It is a good idea to involve the creators in the development of the paywall and explain why it is desired.

Building block: Protection

If you want to build a content paywall that works you need a lock on the door.

Online copies damage the paywall because they decrease the uniqueness of the content. The copy competes with the original article in the search engines and can cause a drop in ranking. For freelancers and publishers illegal copies make it difficult to sell the work again because the content is already available online for free.

Paywalls do need protection. You achieve this by consistently monitoring whether your content is accessible in other places. I know of examples where content has been placed behind a paywall by the infringer! No or insufficient protection cost you money, traffic and credibility.

If you look at it from a commercial perspective, there’s a lot of new business out there!  The people and organisations that steal content behind the wall show product demand. They publish the content to an audience the creator probably wouldn’t have reached otherwise. These infringers are potential new subscribers, advertisers, customers for content licenses, undiscovered competitors or even business partners.