Why pay for online information?
Shortly after the internet revolution, newspapers and magazines were publishing their articles and news online for readers and it was not long before it was necessary for them to have online editions.
Publications started competing for more website visitors resulting in the emergence of the e-paper which put a scanned version of the publication online for free viewing.
It did not take long for people to become dependent on these free e-papers and many readers cancelled their subscriptions of the print edition.
As revenues fell, publishers were left scratching their heads. Had they made a mistake by going online? However, they could not go back. The publication would end up losing online visitors. But their fortunes were about to change.
Computer scientists in Silicon Valley were working day and night to make everything on the internet profitable and soon introduced the concept of e-commerce, through which people could buy and sell goods online using credit cards and bank accounts.
At first, people had trust issues with virtual payments. But with the emergence of large online payment processors like Paypal, people found it safer to pay online than in person.
Online publications saw this as an opportunity to make some money and started charging for access to their websites. Newspapers and magazines started charging for their e-editions and soon the internet was a new profitable market for publications.
How paywalls work
These ‘small’ fees or paywalls as they are commonly known can be charged in many ways. The most common is through credit card payments but many websites offer the option to do a survey instead or complete some other small task and have the fee waived.
Many print publications provide an access code with their print edition so only subscribers can access online content for free while others have to pay. Subscriptions are offered in various forms.
Some websites offer premium memberships or subscriptions for a certain time period. Others charge by ‘metering’ the content users read, for example, they charge by the article. This is good for users who read less frequently and are only charged for the articles they access.
Many upcoming online publications have refrained from charging for their content as search engines cannot search paid content, but Google has now resolved this issue with their new one-pass service.
The one-pass service makes paid content searchable. When a user searches for something the paid content also shows up and when he accesses the link he is limited to that article or an excerpt. If he wants to view the rest of the article or any other he has to pay a fee.
What limitations are retained depends on the websites’ preference, with some even giving access to two or three articles as trials or free samples. The Financial Times provides access to its articles on a metered basis while The Sunday Times uses a subscription service.
Why paywalls are good
Paywalls have come under a lot of criticism but in my opinion, are good and will bring a positive change in the long term.
The introduction of paywalls has caused a lot more content to be digitised as content creators no longer fear a loss in revenue. The launch of Google Books, a free online book reading service, was condemned by most authors but e-book stores like Kindle have been welcomed and now virtually all books are digitised and sold in online and hard copy editions. The decline in sales of the hard-copy edition is compensated with sales of the e-editions.
Paywalls are beneficial to both users and content creators. Content creators can publish their work online without losing any revenue and get a larger audience. Users can get access to more information in the comfort of their homes.
Online editions of newspapers and magazines are also usually substantially cheaper as the costs are lower. These online editions are also more vibrant as they are stuffed with multimedia content like video clips and pictures. They are also more interactive and hence, more enjoyable.
Surveys have shown that people enjoy reading online editions more than print editions. In online editions, users can interact with authors and give feedback as well. Online editions also help our environment by saving paper. So what’s the problem when you can get a much better experience for a much lower price?
Many third-world countries are losing out on information as it is becoming ‘premium’. People in these countries do not know how to pay online and those who do may not have access to services for online payment.
Paypal is not available in Pakistan and until recently most banks did not have Mastercard and Visa cards, thus online payments were impossible.
Recently online payments have become possible but people are passing through a stage where they are unsure if they can trust the web. It is these people who really need the knowledge hiding behind capitalistic barriers so they can catch up with the world.
Another problem is that unlike print, no capital is needed to make an online publication. You can make a free website and sell trash and people may buy it because they don’t know the quality of the content they are buying.
All in all, paywalls are a good step as they are increasing available content and not denying content creators the money they deserve for hard work. Many argue that the internet should be free and that one shouldn’t charge for information but in reality, people have just become used to free information online because that’s the way it has been for many years. After all why aren’t they willing to pay for it online when they were willing to pay for it in print?
Fortunately, in Pakistan we still have access to all our newspapers’ e-papers free of cost and we should enjoy this privilege till we have it.
Those who object to paywalls should ask themselves this question: if you were in the author’s shoes, would you charge for your work?
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.