2018 was unquestionably the year of the paywall. Well-known publications from Vanity Fair to the New Statesman decided that paywalls were the best way for them to build relationships with their audience in an increasingly tough ad environment, with Condé Nast announcing just a few months ago that they were going to put every publication behind a paywall by the end of this year.
Nicholas Thompson, the Editor-in-Chief of WIRED, has been the driving force between two of Condé’s most high-profile paywall launches; firstly putting up a metered paywall on The New Yorker back in 2014, then introducing it to WIRED last February.
Media Voices caught up with Thompson this week to discuss everything from their positioning as a tech magazine, to their high-profile features on Facebook, and whether a balance between privacy and safety can ever be reached. He also talked about his approach to launching the WIRED paywall, what his dream paywall would look like, and what advice he’d give to other publications looking to do the same.
Here, we round up the key learnings from their year behind a paywall.
Why introduce a paywall?
For a publication that has always been free online, and which has been associated with the notion that content on the internet should be free, a paywall was a bold move. This was the biggest concern Thompson had when he was looking to introduce the paywall last year.
“We come out of the Silicon Valley counterculture libertarianism, we come out of a philosophy where people in general have thought information should be free, information should travel, don’t put any walls around your information.
“So, when we launched the paywall, I was very worried that a whole bunch people who’d loved WIRED for 25 years were going to write to me and say, ‘You’re not only making this magazine impossible to read, you are destroying the ideals of the founders’. And that turned out just not to happen at all.
“In fact the founders said, ‘Oh that’s great. Smart way to do it, charge for your content, that’s important.’ And everybody seemed to understand. There’s almost no backlash against the paywall.”
Although Thompson was “100 percent confident” about introducing the paywall at WIRED, he highlighted the general concerns every publisher has when restricting or changing access to content in any way.
“Let’s say you lose 10 percent of your traffic. You have been monetising it at X, you lose a certain number of eyeballs, ad impressions, ad revenue, affiliate revenue, brand equity. So you lose money when you launch a paywall because it will not increase traffic, it will most likely only decrease traffic.”