By Mathew Ingram
Esquire is experimenting with a single-story paywall around a piece that was written about the 9/11 attacks, and the proceeds will go towards a scholarship in the name of murdered journalist James Foley
As anyone who follows the media industry knows by now, paywalls are the order of the day for most newspapers and magazines, and in most cases they block off everything that a publication puts online. But what if you had a paywall around a single article? And not only that, but what if a majority of the proceeds from that paywall went somewhere other than to the media outlet?
That’s what Esquire is doing with an article about the September 11 terrorist attacks. As Advertising Age describes it in a recent post, the magazine is taking a 2003 piece about the so-called “falling man” photograph and putting it behind a paywall that asks readers to pay $2.99.
This isn’t the first time the magazine has tried an article-specific paywall: it did so last year with a piece called “The Prophet,” which asked readers to pay $1.99 for an article about a neurosurgeon who claimed to have seen God while in a coma — which sold 7,000 copies — and it tried again with a profile of actor Matt Damon.
But what’s really interesting about the latest experiment — which is being published using the Creativist tool from Atavist, with a paywall from TinyPass — is that a majority of the revenues will go towards a scholarship fund at Marquette University in the name of murdered foreign correspondent James Foley, who was beheaded by the Middle Eastern terrorist group ISIS.
What about other topic-specific paywalls?
Editor David Granger said the magazine hopes to raise $200,000 for a four-year scholarship to the university’s school of communications, and writer Tom Junod has written a new introduction to the story of the 9/11 photograph that connects that event to the shocking pictures of Foley and his fellow journalist Steven Sotloff, who was also beheaded. Like the photos of their deaths, the “falling man” photo was seen by many as inappropriate and many refused to publish it.
Esquire‘s move is smart in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s an experiment in generating revenue from a story that was published a long time ago, but continues to get substantial traffic when the anniversary of 9/11 comes along. And it’s also a goodwill gesture that could win the magazine some fans.
But more than that, it got me wondering: what other opportunities could there be for single-story paywalls, including ones that would raise funds for some other cause? Maybe a story about the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo. could raise money for his family, or a piece about the death of a doctor who dedicated his life to curing ebola could generate cash for a scholarship or charity effort aimed at raising awareness.
Obviously some topics wouldn’t be considered a good fit, because they would be seen as breaching conflict-of-interest rules. But there is a lot of potential in the idea. If publications can convince readers to support a cause like that, maybe it could encourage them to donate or pay for other things as well.