Several of the news outlets I read online are trying to stay profitable by enticing readers with a limited number of free articles per month, with a paid subscription required after that limit has been reached. The New York Times is a very notable example of this, but I've seen the Lincoln Journal Star and the Harvard Business Review do it too. Is it working?

I haven't caved to purchasing a subscription yet, but I've come very close for the New York Times online. They have the best model I've seen so far: consistently high quality long-form journalism for an attractively low price (only $0.99/week for the first four weeks). Some articles are completely free & unlimited: read as many as you want. Others are more restricted: you can access up to ten of these per month for free, but then you have to pay. The content keeps me coming back for more, and I know that clicking on an article I don't necessarily plan to read won't cost me anything -- if it's part of the restricted set of articles, it won't subtract from my ten per month until I read the first few paragraphs then click "Read more" to confirm my desire to see the full text.

On the other hand, Harvard Business Review also has good content, but some articles are more rigorous and informative than others-- full case studies or research papers vs. lightweight business articles. HBR only lets you access five free articles per month if you're not a registered user, and each link you click on counts against you--whether you actually read the article or not. I find myself becoming more and more reluctant to click on links to HBR when I'm doing research, not wanting to waste my access. I'm forced to judge an article solely by the title, guessing at the style of the article and its relevance. When I guess wrong, I feel like I've been cheated out of reading something else I might have appreciated more. It lowers my overall perception of the website and makes me hesitate to visit as often as I'd like. Maybe others who share my frustrations just register or get a paid subscription, but I haven't yet.

Finally, the Lincoln Journal Star caps free access after a certain number of articles per month. The Journal Star also occasionally requires readers to answer a sponsored survey question before they view the article, and covers the top, bottom, and sides of the page with ads. These are all completely understandable - I do believe local news is important and worth paying for. However, I rarely, if ever, meet the access cap, so I have no incentive to pay. The website also often serves pop-ups reminiscent of the phishing scams and virus-laden ads of the early 2000s. ("Your Mac may be infected! Download this virus scanner to find out for sure!") The slow-loading pages and popup ads generally annoy me enough that I don't read more than one or two articles at once. As important as local news might be, I'd really rather not pay for access to this type of user experience.

My experiences with these media outlets inspire the following predictions about the future of sustainable journalism:

  1. Low subscription costs. This probably goes without saying, but the cheaper the subscription cost, the more likely users will be to pay up even if they access the material infrequently.
  2. Consistent supply of high quality or difficult to obtain/niche content.  One thing local papers have going for them is that there are few places to get the same information. Similarly, I know I can trust Harvard Business Review papers to be complete and well-balanced introductions to whatever topic I'm looking into.
  3. Pleasant user experience.  Another thing that really should go without saying: Please don't make me run a virus scan after visiting your website.
  4. Zero-risk clicks. Let users see what they're getting before forcing them to pay or counting against their trial articles.