Why paywall journalism is changing how journalists write

The introduction of online paywalls is changing the way journalists write and this means an audience adjustment says Tim Burrowes.

I was taught that the perfect length for an intro was 24 words – anything between 18 and 32 was acceptable, but 24 the ideal.

Having spent my early career at news agencies, tabloids and daily papers, I was also taught to write news stories in short, sharp sentences – with one idea per sentence.

If you had to read a sentence twice to absorb it, then there was too much information.

Then of course – particularly for news – there’s the story pyramid, layering information as you go.

In part, the idea being that a hypothetical sub editor could easily cut from the bottom to allow for available space. With online, this of course becomes far less of an issue for verbose journalists.

But I wonder if we’re about to see news writing being taken in a new direction as paywall journalism takes over. For the wrong reasons, the rules are being rewritten.

Most publications with paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and the first paragraph or two. To read more you have to pay.

So with a one fact story – Fred X has been named as the new boss of Company Y – there might be insufficient motivation for the non subscriber to subscribe – unless they can be tantalised.

Instead, we’re moving to a situation where intros absolutely cannot get straight to the key fact. Instead, it must be written to intrigue the reader. Company Y has named its new boss. To read more, please log in…

It goes beyond paywall journalism to other online writing.

One of my competitors is fond of sending out breaking news alerts to its subscribers by email without the actual news. Instead, a vague two-paragraph intro that explains there’s some news later in the story.

To read the actual point of the story, you have to click on the link and get to the third paragraph.

And then of course, they’ve been able to serve you some ads, which is their business model.

Paywall journalism is here now and, give it a year or two, they’ll be teaching it at journalism schools around the world.

It’s now part of the game – and has become part of the economic reality of online publishing.

The danger is that it fails to put the reader first. Each time creates a minor annoyance, until the reader starts to subconsciously associate that with the publication in question. It already happens on sites that disrespect readers with things like autoplay video.

Readers like to be respected. And in the end, they go and find publications that respect them.


  1. Rupert
    17 Jul 12
    12:57 pm

  2. Good point, Tim. But you could also say it’s been evolving this way since the early days of online and the perceived need to drive page impressions. Paywalls are just a pricing differential to that.
    And it will be interesting to see if time pressure as a result of reduced production resources actually allows this type of writing. It remains to be seen how paywalled news sites are going to articulate their “quality content” to potential new customers. Will it be speed and volume, or analysis and extension of stories? Each will require a different way of writing and presenting the shop window.

  3. Sacha Molitorisz
    17 Jul 12
    2:21 pm

  4. Great piece, Tim. I think that if the medium changes, the message necessarily changes too. In other words, a story needs to be written differently for a newspaper, a magazine, a website, etc. And similarly, the introduction of a paywall (at least the one you describe) will have a big effect too. These are interesting times for journalists, eh?

  5. Craig
    17 Jul 12
    5:41 pm

  6. The likely outcome of paywall writing is that {please pay $1.00 to continue reading}.

  7. jean cave
    17 Jul 12
    8:18 pm

  8. I find a cracking title AND an amazing image is enough to draw me onwards into an article. The biggest off-put is single line spacing.

  9. Signe Jepsen
    18 Jul 12
    8:08 am

  10. Interesting piece. I’m also very interested in the way new structures changes the way journalism work and is written.
    But two things come to mind when I read your piece.
    1. Does it really matter that the way of writing matters? I mean – tv is also a journalism evolution – and we adapted to that. And also – journalism that is never read is not really journalism, is it. Journalism is designed to have an audience, so when the audience looks in another direction – we have to move there.
    2. We were all thaught that the news pyramide and so forth was created because of the telegraph. That news has to be organised in a certain way because the telegraph lines could collaps, so they had to get the most interesting message through the lines first. This is technology shaping the way journalism was written. Paywalls is also sort of new technology – and it changes the way journalism is written. In my opinion it can still be journalism…:)

  11. Grant Doyle
    18 Jul 12
    1:14 pm

  12. Rupert, the ‘shop window’ is a good metaphor. You have to entice enough to invite someone to ‘step’ through that door, but not give the entire game away completely out front.

    As a digital content teacher and consultant, this challenge is often expressed as converting a users’ “indifference to desire”. Compounding this is the variable context; regular website, tablet app and mobile.

    From a writing perspective, I find I’m now having to ‘assemble’ a selection of channel-specific ‘intros’ while also taking on board all the meta data considerations.

    Speaking of SEO, I understand it’s already driving online headline construction to varying degrees, and any intro preceding a paywall might also be seen as fertile keyword territory, especially given the bots won’t be able to scour protected content to fully or adequately ‘rank’ and display that page organically.

    Which begs the question already raised – who are we writing for here? Human bodies or SE bots? News publishers are invariably going to insist on both. Changes the dynamic a bit for what’s required of a journalist these days. But to be honest, it’s been happening for many years now, and this ensuing paywall stage literally adds another layer to the narrative. That’s all.

    What eventually succeeds (and how that’s measured is another can of MBA worms) can only be really exposed with testing, testing, and more testing. Who knows what the optimum working model might be (and it might differ from publisher to publisher, as I’m already finding in user testing sessions).

    To echo Sacha’s sentiment, these are indeed “interesting” times for journalists. I would also add, potentially very lucrative times for writers willing to embrace the technologies, identify the opportunities and upskill accordingly.

  13. SurlyDave
    18 Jul 12
    1:43 pm

  14. It’s almost like some of these “businesses” are deliberately trying to make money or something.

  15. Anonymous
    18 Jul 12
    4:31 pm

  16. I just counted the number of words in your intro…

  17. Andrew Duffy
    20 Jul 12
    10:10 pm

  18. I graduated 12 months ago from a journalism course and there was barely a mention of new media, and certainly now solid training in it. Most other grads I talk to say the same thing, so I doubt they’ll be teaching paywall journalism in two years… My hopes aren’t that high.

    But re: your competitor, you make it sound like mumbrella isn’t also selling ads…

  19. John Thomas
    21 Jul 12
    4:52 am

  20. Remember when wire copy started coming through the computer system and the copy taster on the desk could only see the first couple of lines lines of each story in the menu (unlike when copies came by teleprinter and they could see a take of five or six paras)? This made summary intros the ideal and one had to arrest the interest of the copy taster in as few words as possible. Very soon, the idea of putting headlines came up, so that if the menu on the screen would take only one line, the headline should grab the eye of the copy taster.
    What we’re now talking about is an evolution since those late 1970s/early 1980s: from the need of reporters to tempt a sub to pick your copy for use, to output subs now needing to tempt subscribers to read on. Miniaturisation drives electronics and electronics is inexorably driving miniaturisation in journalism, or, shall I say, twitterising journalism? We’ll adapt and survive!

  21. Sammy
    21 Jul 12
    6:34 am

  22. TV stations have been doing this for years in their teases. “Skunk invasion sets off stinky search. We’ll tell you where at 10.” (Then it turns out it is some far-distant city, but they’ve hooked us…)

  23. N
    25 Jul 12
    1:23 pm

  24. Actually, paywalls require writing a synopsis instead of showing any of the article. A synopsis has nothing to do with journalism. They should be written by professional copywriters. The moral of the story is that journalism programs should start teaching copywriting.

  25. Andrew
    27 Jul 12
    8:05 am

  26. If a journalist has written a single fact article (e.g. company X has a new CEO Y) then I can probably get that information elsewhere. Particularly as the company probably issued a press release to a number of outlets.

    The key to good journalism is to then go forth and gather other relevant facts. Then critically analyse them. For example what is the new CEO’s background? Is that background aligned with the company’s direction?