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“Is Google literally trying to kill off the fourth estate?”: Publishers react as 33% of news paywalls come crashing down

hand punching bricks

When it became evident that Google was going ahead and effectively demolishing 33% of publisher paywalls, the community reacted with dismay. 

Although Google gave barely 2-weeks’ notice before going ahead with such a major change, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. We’d got wind of what was about to go down, and had kept publishers updated.

Nevertheless, for many it hit home right on July 30, as the update started rolling out globally, and metered paywalls became practically worthless for publishers big and small. 

Major publishers—like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Medium, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News—used to have effective safeguards in place, that limited access and helped boost subscriptions.

No more.

As we observed publisher reactions unfolding live on Twitter, the anger was palpable. Online news media had spent years to get their readers used to metered paywalls and recreate value. A single decision from Mountain View, and all of it started to unravel.

Jonathan Meyers, GM & SVP of CNBC Events, succinctly summed up what people were feeling.

Laura Marsh, Literary Editor at The New Republic, set off the discussions with the question on top of publishers’ minds.

And the floodgates opened, with a range of opinions on both sides. 

“It’s akin to Google walking into a store, taking a newspaper outside (without paying for it) and giving it to a passerby for free,” said tech journalist David Zweig. 

To a contention that this was a “bug” that Google had fixed, Laura Marsh countered, “Isn’t that like kind of saying it’s a bug that storeowners would ever find out about a backdoor to their stockrooms?”

Eventually, the focus moved on to what would happen next… consequences and potential solutions. 

Gavin Allen, Digital Journalism lecturer, touched on the inevitability of less open news access and more hard paywalls. Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the Missouri School of Journalism, suggested doing less cat-and-mouse games, and more building of actual value.

Not all of it was constructive discussions though. 

Predictably, there was some joy expressed at the overabundance of free content Google had now unlocked for users.

And as one would expect, cluelessness was a rampant theme… a bit about what happens now, plus some very interesting beliefs, for example, that using incognito mode is a way of supporting publishers.

And finally, what would the internet be without some cats, bots and benevolent hackers jumping in on the action?

Maybe that’s all we’ll be left with on the open web—cats, bots and hackers—if hard paywalls become par for the course, as a consequence of Google’s unilateral decision. 

As journalist Philippe Guilbert summed it up with élan…

Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.