Last week Conde Nast’s departing chief executive officer, Bob Sauerberg, revealed plans to put all of the company’s U.S. magazines appearing online behind a paywall by the end of the year. (WWD Jan 23)

This was an important and overdue announcement. As Benedict Evans noted: “Fascinating that this decade-old conversation is still going on.” Conde Nast has been slow to recognise and accept that the 20th century model for magazine publishing profitability no longer applies. Display ads can no longer be the saviour and profit generating motor for magazines with massive print circulations; and digital advertising is not going to come to the rescue. Newspapers (the New York Times, Financial Times, etc) have been showing for years that digital subscriptions work; and perhaps the best example of a magazine paywall working is Condé Nast’s own New Yorker. The New Yorker’s steady climb to over 1 million paid digital subscribers has been a long-time in the growing (over 10 years). So, its not that Condé Nast did not know what was going on. Building digital circulations takes time. Slapping up a paywall is not a quick fix and the New Yorker’s slow and steadily climbing digital circulation should remind us that “Paywalls” are not necessarily the best way of thinking about digital subscriptions.

‘Paywall’ is a notably bad term because the key point about a digital subscription service is that it is not really about ‘keeping people out’, which it is what the metaphor suggests. Digital subscriptions work and are attractive because users wish to have the choice and freshness of content that becomes available when the user joins the service or signs on to the community. This is why most news and magazines that run paid-for subscriptions, offer a kind of ‘half-way’ house, through which the reader can get access to a generous ration of content for free by registering for the service first. Exact Editions, for example, provides free access to tables of contents and some pages for every digital issue, and similarly provides free search to all content. This is a model for effective sampling or generous fencing not for paywalls:

Condé Nast are not expecting their move to work equally well with all their magazines. Vanity Fair and Wired have already been moving in that direction. GQ and Vogue will soon be following. It is no accident that the titles that are moving most directly and purposively to a paid content subscriptions approach are those with the most compelling and valuable archives. So Condé Nast will soon be in a position to offer compelling institutional subscriptions to libraries and colleges that will find educational and research value in this content. Exact Editions is ready to help them to deliver that service. Wired is a title that would readily find 100s of institutions that need and will pay for complete archival access.

This change of direction for Condé Nast comes hard on the heels of its decision to shutter the US printed edition of Glamour magazine. That brand will now continue as a digital only web service. A complete archive of that storied magazine’s 79 year history would be a great cultural resource. Lets hope that a Condé Nast executive spots that opportunity before the digital and print files are placed in deep storage. Again Exact Editions can help, we have experience of turning piles of back issues into fully searchable and saleable archives.