Bitcoin Micropayments Get Big Moment as Chicago Sun-Times Paywall Experiment Goes Live

The Chicago Sun-Times and BitWall have a bitcoin paywall test taking place on 1st February.

AccessTimeIconFeb 1, 2014 at 10:17 a.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 3:02 p.m. UTC

Readers who visit the Chicago Sun-Times today will notice something they aren't likely to have seen before: a bitcoin paywall separating them from their content.

The Chicago Sun-Times is the ninth-largest newspaper in the United States, and the first major US publication to trial a bitcoin paywall.

Instead of paying for a subscription, as patrons of the The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times do, Chicago Sun-Times readers who visit the site on 1st February will be asked to donate bitcoin payments to the Taproot Foundation, or tweet about the nonprofit, in order to read articles.

The paywall is part of a 24-hour trial that marks the largest, most high-profile partnership to date for BitWall, a San Francisco-based micropayments startup, and the biggest test to date for bitcoin micropayments. However, if BitWall and the Sun-Times are able to succeed in their goals, this may be something newshounds will be seeing a lot more.

Speaking to CoinDesk about the announcement, CEO and co-founder Nic Meliones reiterated the importance of the trial for his roughly one-year-old company and for the ecosystem:

"I think that this has definitely given us the chance to prove that we can launch full-time with large-scale publishers. That's why this partnership was so huge for us."

Behind the partnership

Though BitWall is a young company, Meliones said it was the Sun-Times that reached out to his team at the beginning of December. A meeting was arranged, and Meliones and his team gave a successful demo showing the capabilities of BitWall.

Jim Kirk, editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times, told CoinDesk his publication had been exploring new ways to monetize content for several months before the meeting.

"We were interested in BitWall's ability to combine the frictionless currency and social media test in a very efficient way," Kirk said.

Within a few days, both parties agreed they wanted to move forward, however, it was the Sun-Times that suggested proceeds from the trial go to the Taproot Foundation, a nonprofit that offers professional marketing, management and other similar services to companies with social focuses. The partnership was revealed earlier this January, and today, site visitors can donate $0.25, $5, $20 or an amount of their choosing to pass the paywall.

While this doesn't exactly allow BitWall to deliver on its main use case - monetization - Meliones said he loves the concept of working for a greater good.

"It really worked out well. Here's an opportunity to infuse new technology into one of the largest newspapers in the US, but in a way that can support other initiatives that are going on," said Meliones.

Project goals

Despite the short duration of this test, Meliones said the trial will be instrumental in helping his company collect data about how consumers use his product. The main focus for both parties, the exec said, will be data collection and information gathering.

"What we want to do is, as soon as we have that data, we can look into what are the actual insights we can gather from that in terms of engaging with the product and how people are using the payment styles and how people are donating tweets," said Meliones.

Meliones said this review will help BitWall as it seeks to improve its product and convince more publishers that the time for accepting bitcoin is now.

For the Sun-Times, the goal is to explore how readers will respond to new services, and determine whether an alternative paywall will be right for them in the long run.

"We are very interested in seeing how our readers engage, especially as it relates to social media as a way to gain access to content," Kirk said.

Forward-thinking publishers

Should the Chicago Sun-Times pursue full bitcoin acceptance, it would be among the first major publishers to do so. This January, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad announced that it would soon accept bitcoin payments, and while some cryptocurrency-specific sites accept tips, none charge for bitcoin in a more formal way.

NRC Handelsblad's decision garnered mixed reactions from its readers, with some reddit readers indicating its system for processing the transactions may cause complications.

That trial also works similarly to existing traditional paywalls, as it asks readers to pay for a certain amount of credit for content, rather than on an article-by-article basis.

bitwall, sun-times
bitwall, sun-times

Micropayments seek big break

The test will also be a major test case for micropayments. In contrast to credit, debit and PayPal, which can charge a high cost for smaller payments, bitcoin allows for low-cost transactions, meaning many of its supporters believe it could be the key to unlocking previously untapped online spending.

“Microtransactions is a really interesting use-case. And if done properly, it can be the driving force behind bitcoin adoption,” Ankur Nandwani, a lead developer at microtransactions platform BitMonet, told CoinDesk.

Angel investor Jeremy Liew named micropayments among the benefits of bitcoin at the New York Department of Financial Services hearings in New York this week. Further, regulators seemed receptive to this selling point, as The New York Times was noted as a company that could benefit from an ability to monetize its content in more diverse ways.

As for whether the Sun-Times will become the publication that opens up the industry for bitcoin, Kirk is still unsure, saying "it's early" for a decision. However, he did express that his company could be interested in further experimentation.

"We hope to gain a little bit of information with this test that might guide more testing in the future," Kirk said.

Image credit: Chicago Sun-Times


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