Blog: The Educated Reporter

Can Newspapers Learn From Angry World War II Vets?

Often the talking point supporting paywalls is the potential increase in revenue online subscriptions can bring to newspapers. But what happens if the paywalls alienate more people than anyone intended?

By way of example, here’s a droll story from NPR about World War II veterans who have never forgiven The Red Cross for ending its policy of giving away free donuts and coffee:

The organization started charging only because the U.S. Secretary of War asked it to. British soldiers had to pay for their snacks, and the free doughnuts for Americans were causing tensions. So the Red Cross complied, after protesting to no avail. It didn’t last long — for most of the last 70 years, Red Cross doughnuts have remained free — but veterans haven’t forgotten.

Chalk it up to something called categorical change, says Uri Simonsohn, a University of Pennsylvania business professor. Price changes, people can adjust to. But this was different.

“Imagine, for Thanksgiving, you go to your parents’ for dinner and after a nice dinner they say, ‘That’s going to be $10 per person,’ ” Simonsohn says. “You would be upset.” 

The problem isn’t the price — $10 for a good turkey dinner might not be such a bad deal — but that you’re being charged in the first place. It changes the relationship. For the veterans, the Red Cross went from being a little like Mom, to being the corner store. 

A colleague brought up the point there’s a precedent for successfully changing consumer behavior even when the upshot is additional costs. The iTunes music store brought legal downloading to the masses after the record industry went after sites like Napster and Kazaa. 

But there are differences between the two examples. Newspapers have been posting their content willfully and gratis for nearly two decades, whereas illegal downloading had a more torrid and shorter lifespan before Steve Jobs came into the picture.

Are newsrooms bound to turn away their readers by asking them to pay up? What’s been the conversation around your water coolers (or gchat pop-up windows)?