What’s on your page, on your pa-a-a-ge: Zombie content and paywall policies in American community newspapers, 2015-2020
By Burton Speakman and Marcus Funk
[Citation: Speakman, B., & Funk, M. (2021). What’s on your page, on your pa-a-a-ge: Zombie content and paywall policies in American community newspapers, 2015-2020. #ISOJ Journal, 11(1), 139-157.]
In 2015, a national study of community newspaper websites indicated a slim majority of websites had no paywall of any kind. Five years later, nearly a third of those websites were no longer publishing – especially those without paywalls. Some such websites redirected to new pages on regional newspaper sites; many others, though, retained the original URLs but no longer published news, creating “zombie” websites that appeared functional years after ceasing publication. Other URLs redirected to foreign gambling, insurance or pornography websites. This two-wave study measures paywalls and content accessibility among community newspapers over five years and considers relationships between closure rates, paywall policies and corporate ownership structure.
In 2015, the Mellette County News in South Dakota, the Marion County News in Tennessee, the Peotone Vedette in Illinois and the Greece Post in New York all had websites. By 2020, all four URLs saw interesting changes. The Greece Post’s old URL redirected to a site for The Post, a consolidated website covering many small communities in the same county. The Marion County News and Peotone Vedette have new websites, but their old URLs have been appropriated by a Japanese car insurance company and an Indonesian gambling site.
The Mellette County News, meanwhile, has become a zombie. It’s technically still an active website but it hasn’t updated since February of 2017. None of those sites had paywalls in 2015. Conversely, the Cumberland Advocate in Wisconsin and Enid News in Oklahoma did have paywalls in 2015—and their websites are still actively publishing news.
The battle lines are drawn regarding paywalls. Many consumers hate them, but more and more news media rely on paywalls to either monetize their website or to incentivize the more profitable print subscription. Publications and media companies of all sizes have added paywalls trying to stave off economic losses (Senz, 2019), although paywalls seem to primarily benefit large-scale media companies while hurting smaller ones, including small-market newspapers with little competition (Chung et al., 2019); paywall policies in those larger conglomerates are typically made in corporate offices, far from local journalists, editors and publishers (The News Landscape in 2020, n.d.). Conversely, in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it is abundantly clear that disinformation and lies have no paywall—making them cheaper to consume than accurate journalism (Robinson, 2020).
Furthermore, past studies of paywalls have not explored them over time. This study began in 2015 with an analysis of paywalls and digital accessibility among 400 American newspaper websites through the prism of networked gatekeeping theory (Barzilai-Nahon, 2005). Five years later, researchers revisited the same newspaper websites to document changes to paywall policy and accessibility.
How have those newspaper websites, and their paywall policies, changed over 60 months? The second analysis in October and November of 2020 found that many retained paywalls and consistent policies five years later. Many others, however, had succumbed to “Zombie Sites”—no longer updated or maintained, either with old news content or a dead or inaccessible URL. Some were folded into other newspapers and some redirected to new websites. An unlucky few maintained their domain but were repurposed into foreign language gambling or pornographic content.
Researchers utilize a mixed method approach to review the websites from more than 500 community media sites. The sample represents large chains, smaller companies and individually-owned publications. It charts changes in paywall policy, as well as survival and zombification rates, and incorporates a 2015 survey of those same publications. It also develops categories for different types of paywalls. The metered paywall, which allows members of the public to view a small number of articles without charge, a full paywall which allows for the reader to view the headline and maybe the first paragraph, and then full paywalls where nothing from an article can be viewed. Sidewalls where people could come onto the site from Facebook, where some publications allow people to access unlimited article views were not reviewed (Stulberg, 2017).
The goal is to utilize networked gatekeeping theory (Barzilai-Nahon, 2005) to advance the understanding that many of the gatekeeping decisions regarding community media websites lie outside of the newsroom. This research suggests that economic concerns, and decisions made associated with those, as opposed to editorial ones, which are typically not made by journalists guide decisions relating to community journalism websites.
Community newspapers have a dual mission to both be a business and provide essential information to a public. For many people, a community media outlet is their primary source of information about their local world; unlike some other countries, though, news media in the United States are typical businesses without public subsidy that have experienced significant disruptions due to the internet (Abernathy, 2014). Additionally, there are those who argue that while news is essential media outlets should still charge for content because other essential businesses continue to charge for services (Saltz, 2020). At the same time, traditional ideas of gatekeeping are no longer sufficient in the modern media environment (Reader, 2018).
Why Community Journalism?
Community journalism outlets embody the majority of American newspapers. While the largest publications believe they set the standards for journalism, they represent only a small portion of the industry (Reader, 2012). Furthermore, many make the incorrect assumption that community journalism is simply journalism on a smaller scale; instead, community media differ from regional and national publications in many ways including a closer relationship between reporters and the community (Reader & Hatcher, 2012). They also tend to have closer relationships with local businesses (Tichenor et al., 1980). This study uses the most common quantitative definition for a “community newspaper,” or a newspaper with regular circulation less than 50,000 copies, which Lauterer (2006) notes comes from the American Society of News Editors. However, the authors acknowledge that size is an imperfect measure of community journalism with a potentially more effective manner for consideration being how much content of a publication it is community focused (Reader, 2012). Size is also challenging because as circulation continues to fall more publications reach that threshold that never would have in the past.
Community journalism research is particularly important because of industry trends. Of the estimated 1,800-plus newspaper closures since 2015, the vast majority has been among community media outlets—including more than 1,700 weekly publications (Abernathy, 2018). Prior studies also show that community newspaper publishers have been slower than larger publishers to implement new technologies, including websites (Adams, 2008; Garrison, 2001; Greer & Mensing, 2004; Huang, 2007). Another manner in which community media typically differ from larger publications is technology adoption, which could influence website maintenance and use.
A Slower Nature to Change
The small staff size of community media outlets combined with limited resources slowed the development of websites at community news outlets. (Adams, 2008). Poor planning was also a factor; nearly half of weekly newspapers did not initially develop a business plan for their website (Adams, 2008). Ignoring the web is unlikely to be a successful long-term business plan for community newspapers because their audience is moving online (Abernathy, 2014). However, the added expense of creating and maintaining websites comes at a time when community media also need to shed legacy costs and attempt to find new revenue streams (Abernathy, 2014). Altogether, past research suggests online innovation occurs at larger newspapers before smaller ones (Garrison, 2001; Greer & Mensing, 2004; Huang, 2007).
Additionally, larger newspapers typically are more active in the digital sphere than their smaller counterparts (Carey, 2014; Schultz, 1999; Xu, 2020). These differences often relate to budget limitations. Large news organizations have more financial and human resources to devote to digital content and development; small newspapers lack those resources and have smaller digital footprints (Cornia et al., 2016; Greer & Mensing, 2004; Schultz, 1999; Zaleski, 2018). This suggests that community media may invest less in their website, or simply choose not to have one, to protect and prioritize their more profitable print product. This thought leads to the concept of gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping in Digital Spaces
Media gatekeeping represents selections made by journalists about what to publish (Bass, 1969; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; White, 1950). Digital media gatekeeping choices likely influence people’s access to the news, in particular local news. Additionally, changes in the way that people access news results in most types of media acting more like community media, ostensibly because digital media primarily appeal to niches and communities (Rennie, 2007). Technology proposes some challenges for journalists in maintaining their gatekeeping role of the past, but researchers disagree on both the severity of the challenge and how journalists and media outlets should respond. The idea of gatekeeping choices potentially being made for economic reasons is not new. There is a potential argument that gatekeeping decisions traditionally relate, at least partially, upon financial considerations (Soroka, 2012; Tichenor et al., 1980).
However, journalists remain unsure if reducing their gatekeeping role is the proper method of coping with the financial difficulties facing journalism (Vu, 2014). Yet some would argue that journalists have already ceded at least some gatekeeping control as part of an increasing reliance on web analytics to help select what stories feature prominently on many news websites (Tandoc, 2014). These studies point toward a concept of gatekeeping for noneditorial reasons that has occurred in the past, and potentially will continue in the future as it relates to digital media. Companies will likely allow or block content based on what they believe is within their financial interests.
Paywalls as Economic and Gatekeeping Concepts
Paywalls represent a potential gatekeeping concept because they limit public access to information and force them to make a choice about how much they value that information. Historically, the newspaper industry has not consistently embraced or utilized paywalls, mostly because they have been ineffective in generating income (Franklin, 2014; Sjovaag, 2016). Companies that utilize paywalls typically earn a relatively small amount from them, particularly when compared to print subscriptions (Franklin, 2014; Lacy et al., 2014; Myllylahti, 2014).
There are examples of effective paywall usage. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette is known for adding a paywall to encourage readers to continue their print subscription, not as a moneymaking idea (Pickard & Williams, 2014b), and the Shawnee Mission Post hired more staff and expanded based on success in attaining digital subscribers (Morris, 2019). They were able to do this through a focus on civic journalism about their local community (Morris, 2019). Furthermore, some believe that metered paywalls can lead to digital subscription models that are ultimately more profitable than advertising-based models (Pavlik, 2013). There are those who argue the future for newspaper in a digital world relies upon subscriber revenue (Saltz, 2020).
Conversely, though, others have argued paywalls are elitist and defeat the purpose of community journalism by limiting news to a select few, not the community as a whole (Benson, 2019). There is also skepticism that paywalls will not provide a long-term financial solution and other methods will be more successful than limiting access to content (Singer, 2017); alternatives include foundations, donations, micropayments and any economic method that removes news from market pressures (Nielsen, 2016; Pickard, 2019, 2020; Scott et al., 2019). Historically, paywalls have not typically offset losses from advertising revenue (Bryant, 2018; Pickard & Williams, 2014b). Paywalls also represent a challenge to many people’s idea of what journalism should be. Paywalls treat journalism as a commodity as opposed to a public service (Pickard, 2011). Paywalls provide a limit of who can receive essential information and go against the internet norm of free content (Pickard & Williams, 2014b). They also could limit the views and diversity in the information in the national discussion (Pickard & Williams, 2014a). Yet, while the news media are a public service, they cannot be a public service if they go out of business (Saltz, 2020).
More recently, many newspapers removed paywalls for stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic (Jacob, 2020; Saltz, 2020); others left paywalls intact, and experienced an increase in subscribers (Jacob, 2020).
Research Questions and Hypothesis
This two-wave analysis of paywall policies in American community newspaper websites explores how paywall strategies in 2015 correspond with website closures, “zombie” content and continued publication. It also builds on previous academic scholarship on networked gatekeeping theory (Barzilai-Nahon, 2005) to explore implications for paywall policies in the future.
RQ1: How have community newspaper website paywall policies changed between 2015 and 2020?
H1: Publications will be more likely to have a paywall in 2020 than in 2015.
RQ2: Between 2015 and 2020, how many community newspaper websites ceased regular publication? What, if any, content is now published on the site?
RQ3: Is there a relationship between paywall policy in 2015 and website elimination by 2020?
RQ4: How will corporate ownership influence the use of paywalls?
This two-wave content analysis identifies and categorizes the paywalls of 400 community newspaper websites. Researchers included publications with stated (paid or unpaid) circulation of 50,000 or less, which mirrors the definition of community news used by Lauterer (2006). The list was compiled in 2015 from an initial Gale Directory listing of 3,724 potential community news publications; the 400-newspaper sample reflects 10.7% of the total population of American newspapers.
In both 2015 and 2020, websites were reviewed to determine content accessibility and paywall structure on the site. Potential access options were all content available, a limited number of articles as part of a metered paywall, or sites with a hard paywall where no access to content occurred without signing into the site.
The two coders started with the home page, and then looked at each of the specific sections listed on the website. If a paywall notice immediately appeared on the site, the coder would attempt to review at least one article from each section if the paywall allowed. The coder also attempted, if possible due to paywalls, to view a roughly equal number of articles within each of the sections on the site. To determine intercoder reliability for these content analyses a third coder received training to assist. All three coders reviewed 40 of the sites, which represented 10% of the total sample. Krippendorff’s alpha scores included total agreement for more basic questions related to website functionality such as if the public could submit material using a digital form, email address or by mail. There were differences in story type however. The Krippendorff’s alpha scores ranged from 1 for social news in both UGC and staff produced, probably at least partially due to lower numbers of examples, to a low of .92 in the category of staff produced soft news articles, which also had among the largest number of responses. There was also a small amount of disagreement about how many times the site might have solicited comments with a score of .974. These scores for Krippendorff’s alpha fell well above the minimums suggested by Riffe, Lacy, and Fico (2013) for intercoder reliability.
Metered paywalls included both publications that were explicit about the limited number of articles freely accessible and others that did not mention the limit until readers had reached their maximum number of articles. Some publications allowed readers to view as few as three articles without subscribing and others allowed much more but did not say explicitly how many articles a reader could access without subscribing. In addition, while publications with a hard paywall typically allowed readers to view headlines and sometimes part or all of the first paragraph, there were sites that simply told those who came to the site how to subscribe and/or a method of submitting content or otherwise contacting the newspaper’s staff. There were also two newspapers whose entire website consisted of a PDF of a recent print edition of the publication.
The 2015 study was published as part of the primary author’s dissertation (Speakman, 2017) at Ohio University. The second sample, taken five years later, looked at the same elements regarding how much of the site was viewable without a subscription, but the researchers modified additional questions for the survey based on findings from the previous study. Unlike the first wave, the second analysis also included dormant, dead and “zombified” websites that were active in 2015 but not in 2020; the 2015 analysis focused entirely on community newspapers with active websites. The second sample also used different coders in this case two educated white males with familiarity with and experience in the journalism industry. To test intercoder reliability, 40 sites were reviewed by both coders and Krippendorff’s alpha scores are included with each of the questions below.
This sample reviewed the following questions. What amount of access does a nonsubscriber have to the site? The options were that a viewer can access all content; can access limited content; can access no content; and there is no website. Intercoder reliability received a Krippendorf’s alpha score of .925. The next question went more in detail than the previous sample to learn how much content a reader could access. The options were unlimited content; 10 or more; five to nine; one to four; one or two paragraphs; headline only, or none. Intercoder reliability received a Krippendorf’s alpha score of .968. These were the most commonly found options noted qualitatively in the prior sample and in a brief review prior to starting the second.
The third and fourth questions sought to learn more about ownership factors and how they might influence access to content regarding paywalls. The third measured ownership model and if a publication was privately owned, owned by a hedge fund, or publicly owned (i.e. traded on the stock market). Intercoder reliability was KA .944. The last question asked how large a media company was in terms of holdings. Options were 1-5; 6-10; 11-20; 21-50; 51-100; and more than 100. Intercoder reliability was KA .844. All intercoder scores were above acceptable levels for agreement in content analysis (Riffe et al., 2019).
RQ1: How have community newspaper website paywall policies changed between 2015 and 2020?
In 2015, of the 400 community newspaper websites, 211 (53%) allowed free and full access to all content on the site, 129 (32%) used various types of metered paywalls that limited the amount of material available for viewing without subscribing, and 60 websites (15%) did not allow the public to consume any content. The metered paywalls included both publications that were explicit about the limited number of articles freely accessible and others that did not mention the limit until readers had reached their maximum number of articles. Some publications allowed readers to view as few as three articles without subscribing and others allowed much more, but did not say explicitly how many articles a reader could access without subscribing. In addition, while publications with a hard paywall typically allowed readers to view headlines and sometimes part or all of the first paragraph.
The results changed extensively in the sample five years later. At this point, only 97 publications allowed viewers to freely view all articles. One of the more interesting elements of this was that a number of the publications that did not have a paywall were owned by Gannett, and the former GateHouse publications had not been placed behind the three-article paywall used by Gannett’s other publications. Another 16 did not provide access to any content, which is a reduction from the previous sample. There were 169 publications that utilized some form of paywall for their content. Overall, the 2015 sample had 37% of publications that utilized some form of paywall, whereas in the 2020 sample 60% of community newspaper websites utilized some form of paywall. (See Figure 1.) This suggests that a sizably larger percentage of community media websites have added paywalls to their sites in the past five years.
H1: Publications will be more likely to have a paywall in 2020 than in 2015.
In 2015, a slim majority of newspapers in this study had no paywall. Five years later, just over a third of surviving newspaper websites had no paywall. Metered paywalls were twice as common among surviving newspaper websites in 2020 than in 2015; full paywalls were rare in both 2015 and 2020. (See Figure 1.) H1 is supported.
RQ2: Between 2015 and 2020, how many community newspaper websites ceased regular publication? What, if any, content is now published on the site?
Between 2015 and 2020, 118 newspaper websites (30%) in the study ceased regular news publication. In many relatively simple cases, the newspaper’s original website automatically redirected to a larger newspaper’s website. So, while the reader still gets news, they receive it from a publication that is further away and less local to them. Additionally, in a number of these instances the smaller (typically weekly) publication still exists as a sub-page. This creates a lack of identity for the print publication and will likely eventually result in the death of the publication, because as Abernathy (2014) notes, the audience is moving online. It also implies a lower priority for the local community, and local news, alongside dependence on (and consolidation with) larger regional news media.
In other cases, the websites were still technically active but had not published news in over a year, or longer. While not technically dead, such “zombie” websites serve no practical journalistic or community-building function.
More common were websites that had been abandoned and repurposed, occasionally in unusual ways. In a few cases the local newspaper website had been overtaken by either city government or public relations firms. They were producing “news,” or at least commercial or promotional content designed to resemble news, that was at least focused on the same local community. In other cases, the URLs were completely the same, but had been taken over by wildly different content. There was one instance of pornography and another where a Japanese insurance company took over a site while retaining the original publication’s logo. Additionally, all the former Russell Publications’ websites are now operated by an Indonesian gambling site.
These URLs were presumably attractive to foreign companies because of U.S.-based Google traffic, including traffic from people searching for these small newspapers. The companies in these instances made no attempt to redirect to another site after purchasing the URL, nor does their content match the news-oriented URLs in any way.
In a few such instances, the weekly newspaper still existed in print and may have moved to a new URL. This provides a challenge because a Google searches still directs you to these “zombie” sites, which could lead surprised readers to assume the paper had closed. It would have been simple and reasonably low-cost for a publication to maintain ownership of the URL. However, now that URL is lost and gone forever.
Publications likely decided to cut costs when migrating to a new URL or consolidating different community newspapers, presumably not expecting their old domains to be appropriated by exotic or foreign language content. Maintaining old domains—even without an active website—would be relatively cheap and prevent future confusion and appropriation.
RQ3: Is there a relationship between paywall policy in 2015 and website death by 2020?
Researchers utilized simple descriptive statistics to examine publications that no longer had a website and if they had a paywall in 2015. Of those publications with closed websites, 59 of them had no paywall in 2015. Sites with no paywall represented 52.8% of sites examined in 2015, yet they make up 60.2% of newspapers that no longer operate an independent website. Additionally, 15.1% of sites that had a website in 2015 did not publish news, using the site instead to promote print subscriptions and contact information. This group represented 18.4% of the disappearing community newspaper websites in 2020.
The last group considered is those community news websites that utilized any form of paywall in 2015. These sites constituted 32.3% of the 2015 sample, yet only 19.4% of the community media websites that no longer existed in 2020 had some type of paywall in 2015, despite the fact that sites with paywalls represented 60% of the total existing sites in 2020. This suggests a relationship between paywalls and newspaper website closures. Those publications that put the least effort into their websites, by either allowing full access or simply having a spartan site with no content at all, appeared considerably more likely to either cease to exist or to have had their site co-opted into part of a larger publication.
RQ4: How will corporate ownership influence the use of paywalls?
One of the elements considered was how corporate ownership might influence paywall policy. One of the more interesting findings was that the three hedge fund-owned publications did not utilize paywalls. However, there was not a statistically significant difference between publicly owned and private media companies. To some degree this is likely connected to the small sample size for hedge funds. Otherwise, it appears that publicly traded and private community media act in much the same way regarding paywall decisions.
This study further supplies some possible explanation as to why these community media website managers engage in networked gatekeeping. It relates to economic concerns and in particular controlling access to specialized content. For these economic decisions, managers must consider both limiting public access to the website and the use of paywalls on journalistic sites as forms of networked gatekeeping decisions. Networked gatekeeping applications would seem to suggest economic-based gatekeeping could be successful because the public often accepts limitations online (Coddington & Holton, 2014) and economic-based networked gatekeeping may represent another form of withholding (Barzilai-Nahon, 2005). Furthermore, the public accepts limitations based on feedback from those operating the network as part of the criteria for participation (Coddington & Holton, 2014), which in this instance could relate to story type to submit, what content is available online, or even what version of the publication to consume.
One can also speculate that issues like the combining of websites were also related to economic issues. There were 46 publications that now redirect to combined sites or larger publications. Yet, there remain questions about what it means for the long-term health of a publication to no longer have a direct website associated with the publication.
In 2015, it’s plausible that community newspapers focused on more profitable print products and crafted their digital strategies to reflect the higher-priority print versions. In many ways, print was profitable and the web was not. Relying on print may offer short-term success, but it would appear to result in long-term problems because it opens the opportunity for competitors who might make different economic gatekeeping choices in networked environments. In fact, this could result in the same type of limited economic thinking from media companies that led to much of current state of the industry.
By 2020, priorities had obviously shifted. Newspaper websites that did not regularly publish news had often closed their websites by 2020; also by 2020, a majority of newspapers had a paywall of some kind. Papers that had no paywall in 2015 made up a majority of newspaper website closures by 2020. This also reflects research showing newspaper audiences moving online, both before the first wave analysis (Abernathy, 2014) and has grown in the years since (Barthel et al., 2020). Additionally, there is some indication that paywalls will be part of a model that successfully funds digital journalism (Pickard & Williams, 2014a).
In a survey accompanying the first-wave analysis inn 2015, community newspaper website editors often reserved user-generated content for the print publication to prioritize print. This strongly suggests that those running these sites were already thinking economically. The results of this study show that publications with paywalls are seemingly better able to stay in business at the community level, providing further evidence that it’s in the best interest of the publication to think that way.
This seems to work in two ways. First, a publication needs to have a local website presence as part of audience development over the long term while still privileging and in fact attempting to provide a gatekeeping mechanism to encourage members of the public to subscribe to the print version of the publication, or at a minimum force them to pay for an online subscription if they seek local news. Prior data from the industry and academic research clearly shows that print was, and remains, the more profitable publishing medium for newspapers (Chung et al., 2019; Harzard Owen, 2019; Pickard & Williams, 2014). In fact, paywalls only represent about 3% of total revenue with publications with a stronger print subscriber base (Chyi & Ng, 2020).
While this paper does focus upon gatekeeping, it’s important to discuss some of the other issues, particularly with nearly 30% of sites defunct just five years later. There were two elements that appeared to go into this because in some cases the publications did close; in other instances the publications were merged with other small or sometimes larger publications. But there were also instances where publications took a strong stance as it relates to networked gatekeeping and simply removed themselves from the network. These publications have chosen to remove themselves from the Internet (except the occasional Facebook post). So, while as Abernathy (2014) states the audience is moving online, these publications have chosen to stick to the more profitable print and force those who want news from that community in a very direct manner. This includes the number of abandoned Zombie sites that still contain the newspaper content yet have not been updated in years. There are a few of these sites that continue to sell subscriptions to the publication using the site, and a handful that continue to offer online subscriptions. There are even a few that simply contain an image or a PDF of a front page (sometimes recent, sometimes not) and an address or phone number to subscribe.
The lack of activity would serve as a message to younger potential future subscribers that the publication lacks a serious digital footprint. This also runs contrary to the central focus of community journalism—relentlessly local news coverage (Lauterer, 2006). By not regularly publishing news content online, or by collapsing local news into a sub-section of a regional publication, editors are effectively limiting the development and importance of their local communities. Neglecting local digital content would seem to effectively disconnect the local community from the digital realm or articulates that local identity as a sub-section or afterthought tied to a larger region.
The researchers would also be remiss if they failed to mention what became of the other sites that are no longer actively being used for community media coverage. At least one site was taken over by the city government to provide information about the community, another is now being operated by a public relations firm that uses the site to post press releases. Some sites have met a different fate; for example, all the sites formerly managed by Russell Publications are now Indonesian gambling sites, another company’s site now contains niche pornography and a third has become a Japanese auto insurance site. This suggests at least some value to the sites in that people are still searching for the website for these publications. However, it is one that many in the media industry do not seem to recognize.
The growth of zombie websites seems a troubling development in an industry that has lost more than 1,800 print publications within the past few years. It also does not speak well for the continued inability for media companies, and in particular community media sites which serve a smaller niche audience, to successfully monetize their online platform. In fact, it continues to show a lack of a plan to monetize the web that has existed in community media for more than two decades.
There are limitations to this study in that the researchers never directly spoke to the companies about their decisions. As a content analysis, this study provides statistical context regarding a large group of American community newspaper websites; it can only speculate about the decisions motivating those policies in 2020, however. Additionally, as it relates to websites, it is likely that paywall policies are set at corporate offices rather than individual newsrooms; a full understanding of paywall motivations would require interviews with corporate executives as well.
Similarly, understanding motivations for collapsing local newspaper websites into regional news websites merits further study.
There are several possible explanations for closing or consolidating a newspaper website, including a loss in staffing making it untenable, new staff that do not possess the technological skill, or simply a lack of interest from the local audience. The challenge is that all of these reasons in some ways connect to economic factors. Therefore, it seems clear that gatekeeping in networked spaces is being done for economic reasons. Newspapers are struggling to survive and taking whatever measures they can to maintain profitability and remain open (Abernathy, 2018).
It seems highly likely that such decisions are motivated by financial and human resources, but a more thorough investigation is warranted. There are also demographic limitations based on respondents. Nearly all the respondents, were white, male, and above the age 50, which likely influences how they think about the web. It is unclear if this is a limitation of who elected to respond, or one of who is responsible for websites at community media publications.
The issue of paywalls should continue to be studied in a number of ways. First, expanding upon Chyi and Ng (2020) to look more at digital subscriptions among smaller publications. Most studies that focus on paywalls focus on national or regional publication and the impacts neglecting the smaller local publications that still serve as a primary news source for a sizable part of the population. Furthermore, researchers should consider if the simple act of having a paywall helps to staunch the loss of print subscribers to determine if media outlets had successfully created a gate to force the public into their chosen platform.
This study moves research forward in two manners. The first is that it provides perspective about how paywalls have changed over the past five years during a time of extensive closures. It helps provide perspective to previous research into paywalls that looks at single points in time or paywalls up until a certain point (Benson, 2019; Pickard & Williams, 2014a). Additionally, while previous networking gatekeeping research focuses on how the networked environment is different (Barzilai-Nahon, 2005; 2006; 2008), this research helps to offer a perspective about why gatekeeping in networked spaces might differ.
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Burton Speakman is an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University. He previously spent more than a decade in the news industry in community media.
Marcus Funk studies podcasting, digital communities, agenda setting and traditional community journalism. He teaches journalism and podcasting at Sam Houston State University and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism. He’s a big fan of horror movies, true crime and Texas barbeque.