The Marriage of Figaro and Paywalls

Includes: AHC, GCI, GHC, NWS, NYT, SSP
by: Felix Salmon

France’s Le Figaro has unveiled its own freemium version of a paywall, and it’s an interesting model. Fresh news is free; old news disappears into an archive. Once you’ve registered, you can get emailed newsletters and can comment on articles; if you pay €8 per month you get French versions of New York Times (NYSE:NYT) articles and 30 articles per month from the archive, as well as various social-networking bells and whistles. And for €16 per month you can get 90 stories from the archive, as well as two business newsletters, and a concierge service for restaurant and travel reservations.

Interestingly, the social-networking bells and whistles at the €16/month level are “focused around business networking” — this essentially uses your willingness to pay that kind of money as a signalling device, indicating that you might well be someone worth doing business with. There’s also an interesting distinction being made between being allowed to comment, on the one hand, and being allowed to contribute your own stories, on the other. Although it’s a little bit worrying that people are now being asked to pay for the privilege of providing content to news sites: it kind of turns the old-fashioned business model — of paying journalists for their contributions — on its head.

My feeling here is that the premium services aren’t designed as money-makers, in and of themselves, so much as they’re designed to build the kind of brand loyalty among online subscribers that Le Fig currently has among its print subscribers. Paying money for something makes you feel more fondly towards it — especially when doing so means that you become part of a select social network. I’m sure that once people start subscribing to the paper’s website, they’ll start visiting it many more times per month than they do currently, and thereby help increase, rather than decrease, its total advertising revenue.

This, then, if it works, is a paywall done right — although the blogosphere is going to want some way to be able to link to articles while knowing that the linked articles aren’t going to disappear behind an archive paywall in a few days or weeks. But more to the point, if it doesn’t work, then little harm is done, and Le Fig can dismantle it without embarrassment. It’s a low-cost experiment, not a high-profile directional bet on the future of online journalism. Such bets have an astonishingly low success rate, and it behooves all news organizations to avoid them. NYT, take note.