In Kenya’s media industry, the paywall – a digital system that allows only readers who have subscribed by paying a certain amount of money to access news articles and stories on a website – is a new business model and a new source of revenue. The paywall has been in existence since 1996, when the Wall Street Journal (US) first tried it out.

Other news websites worldwide have joined in over the last two decades, but the New York Times seems to have found a working and profitable model of charging readers on their website. The latest subscription numbers from the New York Times are not public. However, this might shed some light on just how well they cracked the paywall success code: In the first quarter of 2020 (January to March), the New York Times boasted over 5 million subscribers. Two months later, the company announced that it had amassed one million more new subscribers and now had over 6 million.

When revenue from traditional advertising is going down, revenue from the New York Times’ subscription is at an all-time high; easily the best in the world. The company appears to be in its league when it comes to attracting new subscribers. It has mastered the art of producing quality journalistic content and consistently uploading it on its platform. How to retain subscribers, layout content, and track audience consumption habits to know what compelling content to keep churning out and keep the readers hooked.

Can The Standard and the Nation websites in Kenya and their newly instituted paywalls achieve the same success? “A large majority of our audience can still access the website for free. We do not require them to pay anything,” says Churchill Otieno, Managing Editor, Digital at Nation Media Group and President of Kenya Editor’s Guild.

“What we have is a hybrid paywall which allows people to read some content freely but requires them to register and pay to access certain specific content. It’s something that we keep working to improve every single day,” Churchill, who was instrumental in implementing the paywall system at Nation told the EAST Site.

Keeping up with the market trends

The Nation recently celebrated signing up its first 50,000 subscribers. Churchill says that the response from the audience is positive so far, and they are meeting their targets. They are keen on analyzing user data to understand market trends and serve their readers better. At the same time, they are aggressively driving registration.

But there has been one problem; the number of clicks on their website has dropped. “The drop in traffic is a natural behaviour within an audience pool in the short term whenever paywalls are introduced,” Churchill explained. He said this is especially true in a market that has not had paywalls before. “Initially, people are used to free-ranging, where they are able to come in and go however they like, and so when you begin introducing hurdles in their path, the natural thing is that instinctively a few of them will be discouraged from visiting the site,” Churchill added. “The trick is to provide compelling and unique content consistently, and they will be back on the platform.”

Reaction from Kenyans

On social media, Kenyans have been saying they do not think putting up a paywall is the right move. Others say they will never pay for website access. According to Churchill, however, any perceptive observer will quickly notice that this conversation is user-driven, that it is the users themselves initiating and sustaining that conversation. It’s curious why it has remained an issue of public interest 10 weeks after The Nation enacted the paywall system.

“This is a new ‘news’ habit within that audience, and for me, that’s important,” Churchill said. “We have a cohort of users that are resisting, but we also have another cohort of users that have embraced the paywall and have moved into habitual users of that paywall.”

For Churchill, the main challenge is to slowly but surely grow the numbers of those embracing the change while working with those pushing back. “Just to help clarify things to them, especially that a paywall is probably the purest choice of supporting journalism.”

Brian Okoth, News & Current Affairs Editor, Digital at Standard Group, shares Churchill’s positivity about the future of paywalls in the country.

“If in a week you can make half a million shillings, this is something most news websites don’t make in native advertising,” Brian told EAST Site. “This is to show how successful paywalls can be. Of course, ours is still a work in progress, and there are areas where we can do better.”

Brian believes that the Standard can achieve the New York Times type of success in Kenya. “It is all about context. You must understand the environment you work in,” Brian said, stressing that The New York Times understands their environment pretty well. Hence, they push social content and information to do with family, homes (human interest type of content) and politics. “The best example is how they covered Bill and Melinda Gates divorce. They understood the social and political implications of the divorce and decided to go big on it. It worked for them.”

Content Saturation

The Standard paywall, which is just a few months old, is not without challenges. Running premium content every day is not easy, according to Brian. There are days when everything is happening, and it is good news material. But then there are days when even after doing good follow up pieces, there is content saturation, and it becomes challenging to sell unless you have something new and spectacular to add. “This is the reason why we are here. It gives me excitement to find ways of ensuring that the curve does not fluctuate in terms of the quality of content.”

What about the Nation? Can it replicate New York Times success?

“Different markets, different realities and very many intervening factors,” Churchill explained. However, he also emphasised that his team remain resolute. “There is no going back. We are going to do what it takes, lots of lessons to be learnt, there will be lots of failures that we have to contend with but all that is expected and all that is planned for,” Churchill noted.

“I do not know if it will go the NYT way. Chances are it won’t. Chances are that there will be a totally different path because of the different set of intervening factors in our strategy,” Churchill Otieno of the Nation concluded.

Jane Godia, an editor, media trainer and Director at Women In News -Africa, is keen on how media practitioners are responding to such industry changes. She suggests that journalists must be open to learning and they must find a way of being in-step with developments and transformations taking place in their organisations.

“Digital transformation is one place where journalists need to be aligned or they will be left behind. At Women in News we are bringing this message home to our cohorts and are taking them through modules we have developed. They must develop skills that will enable them to stay on top of the changes taking place in the industry.”

But is the Kenyan public ready for the paywall, seeing as they are only used to free online content from multiple sources?

“A lot of sensitisation and awareness creation must be done,” says Godia, adding that media organisations will have to initiate adult public education on paywalls to make ardent readers of hard copies and free content understand that the world has changed.

“Some media houses may not make immediate profits as they anticipate. The change may not be instant but they must find a way of reassuring their readers and making them understand that paywall is cheaper than buying the hard copy and that one spends less in a month through the paywall than buying a hard copy.”

About the Author

Author ProfileIsaac Swila
Isaac Swila is a Kenyan journalist with strong interest in new media, politics, governance and sports. He's reported extensively on local and international sports events and is currently a news editor at Royal Media Services.

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