Navigating Kenya’s news consumption paywall, lessons from NYT

Seven years ago, the NYT was in deep editorial and financial crisis. Revenue was declining at “free fall”, print copies were becoming expensive, and web and social media traffic was lowest compared to BuzzFeed, NPR and the Business Insider.

Despite launching the paywall back in 2011, 4 years later, the company was still getting nothing from the new strategy, even after recording growing subscription rates. Cracking the juggernaut of how to convert the over 700,000 subscribers into customers was an uphill task.

Readership trends did not favour them. Its 1,600 journalists kept doing what bosses insisted – ‘think about the reader when you sit down to write any story. Is it something you would pay to read yourself?’ But readers were used to free content across various blogs and smaller media houses.

Even after efforts of generating well researched and analysed content, the NYT kept sinking in revenue till 2018 when an idea to relaunch the Metered Service paywall was floated. It was approved, and implemented silently. 8 years down the line, technology had changed and most of the algorithms deployed in 2011 were obsolete. Reader preferences had also changed.

A new design was laid out and launched in-house, without anyone noticing. And that marked the beginning of profitability, NYT could get real-time feedback and work on improvements on a daily basis – the power of Big Data analytics. In 2019, it was news across the world that NYT had made Sh71 billion from it’s digital Investments.

Back to Kenya. Not even one media house is close to where NYT was in 2011. Readers say that most of the content labelled as ‘Prime’ does not qualify to be on a news website in the first place.

They complain that signing up for Nation.Africa (which did a series of branding to attract readers) and the Standard had been the most painful part in their attempt to access “stories that matter”.

They say the two platforms are tormenting them when they attempt to pay for a subscription – if at all the signing up is successful. Some have resorted to copy pasting the content to Word and reading it from there! Why?

Because some tech savvy readers have realised there is actually no paywall. Any prime content takes 3 seconds to load, so that they try to be faster than the system. They click the stroty while holding Control+All then Control+Copy, a process that takes them 1 second.

But after reading the story they realise it’s not worth paying for. They raise their concerns on social media, but their frustrations continue. For a country where 46% of the population owns a smartphone, and internet relatively more affordable, no-one would expect such hitches for respected media houses trying to cast their revenue net online.

Payment integration remains a huge hurdle towards tapping cash into the accounts of the two giants, with a lack of M-Pesa or mobile money payment option irking many readers.

Yet these APIs (Application Program Interfaces) are free. Am not saying they will be making millions by next year (It could actually take a decade to enjoy the first profits), but actively responding to consumer requests is a good starting point. Rectify what readers feel is not right. Treat them with care. Find out what they want published.

Ask them what matters to their lives. What kind of stories can they ‘Fuliza’ to pay for? There’s need for a feedback team of humans to camp on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to reply to complain and even call readers to make them feel acknowledged, respected and satisfied.

Relying on ChartBeat analytics, monitoring without any action is a waste of resources. The Nation and Standard stand a better position to rake revenue than the NYT of 2011 since Kenyan readers at least understand why they should pay for content. But they have so many areas they need to work on.

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