By Kevin O'Keefe

Time to say goodbye to paywalls in legal publishing?

paywall law content

Media Life’s Toni Fitzgerald writes that it’s time to say goodbye to paywalls in the newspaper business.

Though 73% of papers have digital paywalls in an effort to capture revenue lost by declining subscriptions and ad sales, it’s becoming clear that paywalls will not be enough.

A recent Hubspot study found that “as free content continues to proliferate on the web, many publishers are finding it harder and harder to charge for their publications.” The study, per Fitzgerald, found 20 percent of publishers believe fewer publications will charge for content in the coming six months.

The Toronto Star and the Sun in the UK are among the major publishers who have already taken down their paywalls.

Gordon Borrell, chief executive officer at Borrell Associates, an ad tracking firm in Williamsburg, Virginia told Fitzgerald that the print business model, where you get 25 percent of your revenue from subscriptions and 75 percent from advertising, doesn’t work online. You need huge audiences to generate sufficient ad revenue, and paywalls work against that.

What can we expect in the the legal arena? Historically we’ve had one major player, that being ALM.

ALM publishes among other publications The American Lawyer, the New York Law Journal, Corporate Counsel, The National Law Journal, The Legal Intelligencer, Legal Times, and Law Technology News. When I access most ALM publications in my news aggregator I am met with a paywall that tells me I have reached my “article limit.”

Neither Above The Law nor newcomer, Bloomberg Big Law have a paywall. Of course both of these publications only exist online. They need not cover for historical susbcription and ad revenue.

Nevertheless, Above The Law’s traffic is likely greater than ALM’s traffic. The contributor network from guests publishing pieces to Bloomberg and Above The Law appears to be greater than contributions to ALM’s online publications.

Eduardo Leite, Global Chairman of Baker & McKenzie, recently penned a piece for Bloomberg Law on the importance of social media. Would he have done the same for ALM where the piece would be behind a paywall with lower readership and no social sharing?

ALM’s contributor network, widely discussed a year plus ago, does not seem to be very popular among guest authors. I find contributing to Above The Law, something I do weekly, much more attractive. My posts are widely seen and shared.

I am now looking to carve out time to publish to Bloomberg. If I had the time, I’d contribute to Forbes and the Huffington Post. All without paywalls.

My guess is other authorities in the law feel the same – they want their content freely available so that they may share it, have others share it and link to it and have it found on a Google search, none of which is possible with content behind a paywall.

With an insatiable demand for high quality, often niche  focused content, publishers need content from contributing authorities. Unlikely to happen with paywalls.

I hear good things about Law360 from lawyers and in-house counsel. Through my own neglect, I’ll confess I do not know if Law360 publishes all original content through their own reporters and editors or whether they take content from contributing legal authorities.

No question publishers such as ALM and Law360 provide value reporting on both the law and developments in our industry. Even funneling information alone in order to provide a clear signal on niches is of value.

Social media increasingly moves content across the net. Difficult or possible with paywalls. I cannot share content on social networks or cite content on my blog, something I do liberally, when it’s behind an ALM or Law360 paywall.

ALM is a legacy publisher with excellent publications. Law360 is an upstart that has proven itself of value.

But I question how long they can run their publications behind paywalls. The law is a laggard when it comes to change, but I agree with Borelle, “In five years we’ll have vague memories of what a paywall was.”

Legal publishers may need to take down their paywalls to obtain needed contributions from authorities and the traffic which social media garners.

Iamage courtesy of Flickr by Mike Kniec

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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