The death of American journalist Marie Colvin in Syria Wednesday has sparked an unlikely conversation — about paywalls.
Britain’s Sunday Times, owned by News Corp., published Colvin’s final story outside of its paywall, allowing any reader access to it. For other content, one must be a subscriber.
It did so because Colvin, who worked for the Times for the past two decades, wanted it that way. Colvin’s stance can be found in an article posed on Wednesday by ITV’s Bill Neely, a fellow journalist, which the New York Times’ Brian Stelter then wrote about.
Neely wrote that Colvin ”wanted her words from Syria to reach as wide an audience as possible and was frustrated at the ‘paywall’ that prevented her article for the Sunday Times being widely available on the Internet.”
Colvin wrote, “Getting the story out from here is what we got into journalism for. If anyone can figure out how” (to get over the paywall) “you have my permission to post it, as in I will take the firing squad in the morning.”
Many in the media picked up on Colvin’s desire to get around the paywall, urging everyone to read her final file in its unfettered glory.
Red Magazine's editor, Sam Baker, tweeted "If you didn't read Marie Colvin's last, brilliant, piece for the S Times, you can now. It's outside the paywall."
There is a great deal of debate in the media world around whether a paywall is a good way for newspapers to reverse the downward revenue trend. On the one hand, it does increase subscription revenue, but on the other it is perceived to reduce traffic. It is also cannot make up for declining advertising revenue on its own.
In a case of eerie timing, London hosted its Paywall Strategies conference on Thursday where Tom Whitwell, the editorial director of Times Digital, discussed his paper’s pay strategy.
He argued that while the paper’s readership had shrunk that it had a more engaged audience, prompting some discussion on Twitter.
Patrick Smith, editor of TheMediaBriefing, agreed with Whitwell, tweeting “I am a good deal more engaged as a Times reader post-paywall. Because I’ve paid I read everyday. Was maybe twice a wk before #paywalls12.”
But in the immediate aftermath of Colvin's death, many journalists were struck by how the Times' paywall limited access to news about such a tragic occurrence.
Gordon MacMillan wrote on The Wall, "Unlike a metered paywall The Times/Sunday Times could initially do nothing about the story as rival titles around the world wrote up the tragic story and enjoyed the traffic that came with it as people tweeted tributes and shared links."
Meanwhile, Jim Roberts, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor tweeted “Sunday Times has a great deal of coverage on life and death of Marie Colvin, but behind paywall.”
The Sunday Times-New York Times connection was furthered by Sarah Marshall, writing for journalism.co.uk, who titled her latest feature on the conference “Will the Times move to a New York Times-style metered paywall?”
The New York Times offers readers 20 free articles, at which point they had to pay to read more. That is unless you learn the numerous ways to get around it, which many have. The Times' online audience has not shrunk since it instituted the subscription model.
When asked about alternative models, Whitwell said “If we genuinely believe that will work, we will do that.”
He still seems to think the Sunday Times strategy is best, since he said that their system “works very well” and that he had “huge problems” with a metered paywall. To that end, the Times announced it was doubling the price of its digital subscriptions.
However, Whitewell also suggested that the paper might look for ways that readers can access subscription-only content through social media.
"Working how we let people read articles that people have shared will be a significant improvement of what we are doing," he told Marshall.
Colvin’s wish and this discussion may be nothing more than coincidental timing, but of all the debates spawned by the death of a revered journalist, this is a new one.