Paying for Things That Used to Be Free

The Internet has dramatically changed the way people access information. Once predominantly free, the Internet is changing as well, as content providers increasingly charge for access. Paying to access information has potentially farreaching social, political, and economic consequences. Results suggest that at least over the relatively short timeframe of the current study, participants exhibited strong psychological reactance, particularly those in the inequity cluster. Participants generally did not plan to purchase a digital subscription and were remarkably consistent in their subsequent behavior. They decreased their visits, devalued the NYT, and frequently planned to exploit loopholes to bypass the paywall or switch providers altogether…

When participants were provided with a compelling justification for the paywall — that the NYT was likely to go bankrupt without it — their support and willingness to pay increased. In contrast, when participants were provided with a justification that emphasized financial stability, their support and willingness to pay decreased. It is possible that this latter condition simply confirmed participants’ sense that the paywall was unfair, rather than providing a compelling profit justification. Either way, results suggest that content providers could benefit from more thorough attempts to justify price structures.

When The New York Times announced it was going to throw up a paywall, I had the minority reaction of, “This makes sense. Reporters have to get paid somehow!” Of course, my thoughts were colored by the facts that I was working in journalism, and had friends who worked at the Times who were subsequently laid off due to cutbacks. But this study about consumer psychology behind what happens when you ask people to pay for something that used to be free (and how you frame it) is fascinating. But the Times appears to have made it out alive. Billfold paywall anyone? (Haha, just kidding, never would we ever.)

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