Here’s a quick list of what I read today and where I found it:

  • A New York Magazine story on New York City’s soon-to-be-named schools chancellor, linked in an email newsletter on education
  • A story about the “sriracha-pocalypse,” posted on Facebook by The Atlantic Cities’ social-media staff
  • A collection of writers-on-writing anecdotes in The Atlantic, Tweeted by a journalist I follow
  • A Nieman lab roundup of predictions for media in 2014, ditto
  • A Salon piece, also writers-on-writing, one I’d posted a year ago that resurfaced in my daily Timehop update
  • Four local stories in the newspaper I work for, accessed through our online e-edition

I went to no home pages except for my employer’s. Everything else surfaced, randomly, on social sites and apps.

This isn’t atypical, at least among other 18-to-24s. By and large, if you’re a traditional, general-interest news outlet, people probably aren’t seeking your content out. They’re stumbling upon it. If you’re lucky, someone will stumble upon it enough to realize they value it. If you’re really lucky, it will actually be worth valuing. Astronomical luck will net you a regular place in a reader’s routine or at least a like on Facebook.

But put up a hard paywall, and they’re never going to stumble at all.

Hard paywalls — barriers that block users from accessing content on their first visit to a site, without metering out at least a few visits before the wall goes up — collide with the serendipity of the way we now find our news.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying to leave your site un-paywalled. At my newspaper, we could flood our site with traffic — every person in the county we serve could visit it multiple times a day — and the resulting revenue wouldn’t sustain a business. We need a better solution than digital-advertising pennies.

Instead of slapping up a wall the first time someone makes their way to your site, though, make it metered. Give me and the other digital natives — who will eventually be the only readers left — ten articles or even two for free, before we’re blocked from your content entirely. Think of it as the equivalent of passing a newspaper around in a coffee shop. It’s not enough to sustain a news habit. It’s just a taste.

Give me enough time to realize I value your site and, if I do, I’ll pay for it. I pay for the New York Times. If I lived in this community and didn’t write for the News-Topic, I’d pay for that as well. (I’m not just saying that — my bosses, as far as I know, don’t read my blog.)

Ask me to pay for your content, sure. But give me a chance, first, to decide it’s worth the money. If no one’s stumbling, then eventually, no one will be reading.

And if no one’s reading, the toughest paywall in the world doesn’t matter. You’re guarding something no one knows exists.

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