The existential dilemma of paywalls

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Are you familiar with the expression “tl;dr”? Classic “internet speak” for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s often used in a mocking, trolling sense.

Well, now there’s a new variation on it: bp;dr

“behind paywall; didn’t read”

In the context I just came across it, it was applied to a scientific paper, but obviously the phrase is going to hit the journalistic world sooner or later. As increasing numbers of outlets erect paywalls, more and more people will find themselves in a bp;dr situation. Some will pay, many won’t.

This reminded me of Jon Bernstein’s recent meditation on the catastrophic effect The Times’s paywall had on its blogs, especially Comment Central, which is a shadow of its pre-2010 self:

A blog like Comment Central really needs to be free. There simply isn’t the community among the subscriber base to make it thrive and blogs work best when thoughts are shared, posts link out and are linked to, and discussions are prompted by the opinions and insights expressed. All that needs to happen beyond the walled garden of a single publication.

I think people would do well to pause and remember that, as they rush to erect paywalls around their content, that there’s a price for the publisher as well: isolation from the online conversation that determines relevance and attention. Some years ago, I was involved in an effort to build free access content for one online site that had been paywalled for a decade – because its isolation from online discussion and linking was hitting both its reputation and its search traffic. However good the reputation of this site’s journalism – to the internet, it looked like it didn’t exist.



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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.