Sun-Times to test Bitcoin paywall that’s really just an optional donation box

It’s being called the first test of a Bitcoin “paywall” by a major U.S. newspaper, but readers of the Chicago Sun-Times won’t actually be forced to pay anything during the 24-hour experiment Saturday, publisher and editor-in-chief Jim Kirk told me this week.

(Full disclosure: I used to work at the Sun-Times.)

The Wall Street Journal and NBC News are among the news outlets that have reported on the test, powered by San Francisco startup BitWall, which will prompt visitors to donate between 1 cent and $25 to the nonprofit Taproot Foundation to gain access to the site. The other way for readers to “pay”: tweet about the organization.

But, as mentioned at the bottom of a story by Chicago media reporter Robert Feder, it’s not really a hard paywall as those stories and a press release suggest. Or even a soft one. It’s just an easily bypassable donation can.

“You will be able to access our content if you don’t have Bitcoin or you don’t have a Twitter account,” Kirk said by phone when I asked if he worried the two relatively high-tech methods of paying for content would alienate some readers. BitWall CEO Nic Meliones told me readers would be able to click an “X” button at the top right of the paywall window or a “skip” button at the bottom to opt out.

The Sun-Times is an interesting place for a case study on whether cybercurrencies will enable micropayments previously unfeasible due to prohibitively high transaction fees imposed by credit card companies. It’s a metro daily historically reliant on single-copy sales for the majority of its circulation — about 60 percent as late as 2008 — so maybe readers used to spending pocket change on the newspaper every day might prefer small, pay-as-you-go costs online, too, rather than subscription fees.

Kirk said he didn’t know how much that behavior of print audiences would translate to online audiences but said metro newspapers like the Sun-Times should explore the possibility of micropayments.

In any case, the one-day avoidable “paywall” will likely give the Sun-Times more technical insight into how to operate a paywall like this than audience insight into whether its readers are actually willing or even able to pay very small amounts of money for its content.

Overall, Kirk was vague about the newspaper’s plans for its traditional paywall, which I haven’t been able to trigger during any of my lengthy visits to the site lately: “We’ve been testing various scenarios in which one might come in contact with a paywall,” he said. “We continue to look at it and are trying to see what might be the best scenario for our readers.”

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