Many newspapers have decided that the best and easiest way to make more money off of their online readership is to charge them for access. In 1996 the New York Times tried this model, they stopped a year later after only picking up 4000 subscribers.
They tried again with another program aimed at popular columnists but only managed to get 200,000 subscribers. They decided that the advertising revenue they could generate was worth more than these meager subscriber numbers and went free. These days the New York Times are trying out the pay for content model again, only time will tell how this latest effort will work out.
The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, has had a great deal of success with its subscription program. You get excerpts for free and pay $2 a week for full access to the site. As of Jan of 2008, it was estimated that the Wall Street Journal had a little over 1 million paying subscribers. When given the chance to trade out subscription fees for advertising revenue last year, WSJ decided to remain behind the pay wall.
The Wall Street Journal does have an advantage, it offers financial news which tends to attract an audience willing to pay money. You’ve got to spend money to make money and all that, but even so they prove that it is possible to charge for online content in a way that people will buy into. That brings us to Vivian Schiller, CEO and president of NPR who argues against the idea that other newspapers should put themselves behind a fee,
For the time being I think we’ve got to make [information] available to people, so I am a little bit of a contrarian with some of the people in the news industry who are saying, ‘it’s a big mistake, we should have locked everything behind a paywall.’ I think that will drive audience to lesser quality content that is free.
Her contention is that if enough newspapers, especially those without highly specialized content like the Journal, run behind subscription models consumers will simply find other sources. The result, she fears, will be an overall reduction in the quality of news that people consume and peripherally a reduction in revenue as news consumers flee the fees.