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Tear Down This Paywall

September 8, 2011 — Leave a comment

I was speaking with a friend of mine, an incredibly talented New York Times reporter and great friend, about the NYT paywall recently. When she asked me if I paid, I responded with an indignant “no”, and proceeded to rail against the policy and the whole economic model of putting barriers between journalists and the readers who are interested in their work. When she followed up with a bunch of logical questions about why it was that I felt entitled to the content for free, etc, I ultimately admitted that I was a paper subscriber, and as such wouldn’t have to pay more for the web version. It became clear to both of us that my indignation wasn’t about the money, but rather a steaming sense of frustration that the whole paywall strategy was just wrong, and would hasten the demise of my beloved New York Times. After all, even if I hadn’t been a subscriber, I would still get to read the articles I was interested in if I got to them via Twitter or Facebook shared links. What the NYT had given up was the idea that they were the paper of record for me, my starting point online and a part of my identity; now, they were just one source among many, found through links curated by the folks I follow and respect.

I recently had a similar experience with Time.com, where I went to see an article about a state fair who had pioneered “fried bubble gum” (true story). The site launched a video ad at me and crashed my browser (the latest version of Firefox). I fired off a snarling, churlish tweet about how old media just couldn’t get out of its own way. What is interesting about these two anecdotes? First, that potentially I need some anger management therapy, but enough about me. What’s actually interesting is that someone like me, an avid consumer of media, in fact, I would even say someone who loves media, is so disgusted and annoyed by media’s efforts to make enough money to survive that I’ve aggressively turned away from what they are doing online. Someone who should be on the barricades fighting to defend the traditional media outlets is among the first of the rats to flee the sinking ship.

I guess it’s incumbent on me to propose an alternative, if I’m so certain that forcing people to pay or using interruptive advertising is the wrong answer. I’m not a media theorist, but it’s clear to me that I’m reacting against the thing that’s consistent about those two methods, which is that both will have the effect of reducing readership. The only media strategy that feels right to me is one that drives as much readership as possible. Given the low barrier to entry, there will always be free competition, and as a result even minor impediments to readership will have a significant impact. It could be that we’re talking about the equivalent of the buggy whip industry, and that attempts to restore it to previous levels of profitability are in vain. Maybe quality journalism ends up being supported by donations, like pro publica. But I hope not, and in the spirit of trying to help rather than just criticize, I have a couple of ideas:

Let’s think about what the New York Times (or ABC News, or NPR) produces. Quality journalism, yes. But perhaps even more importantly, the Times produces famous journalists and opinion leaders. It may not be as profitable as it was, but it is still the most valuable imprimatur in the news industry, and an incredibly powerful platform for a journalist to build a name. Does Tom Friedman help the Times? At this point, for sure. But he wouldn’t be Tom Friedman without more than a decade of prime space on the Op-Ed page. I’d be interested to know what the annual revenues of the Tom Friedman Corporation are now, and it’s disappointing that the New York Times doesn’t get any piece of that, having played a major role in creating the phenomena. Why aren’t they his publisher and speaking bureau? The Times could be the most powerful talent agency on earth, with its own factory for creating talent.

I agree that it’s not entirely crazy to charge for content. What is crazy is to put a “wall” up … walls keep people out. Throughout the media industry, the trend has been to lower up-front payments and make money on usage. Think of the gaming industry … most of the truly successful games are free, and make money from selling virtual goods. What can the New York Times learn from Zynga? Let people in the front door, let them share with their friends and then charge the most devoted users (over time) to access elements of the service that help them enjoy it more. Would people pay for access to and interaction with the journalists? Would they pay to attend events, or for additional photographs, or additional copy on particular topics that happened to be cut from the paper? Would they pay to get certain stories or sections early? I don’t know, but I’m certain the Times won’t ever find out by keeping people off their site in droves.

As I said, I’m not a media theorist (I’m not even a media investor). I’m sure these ideas are specifically wrong, and maybe even broadly misguided. But I remain convinced that raising the price of something, through charging directly or making access more annoying, when that something is perceived as more and more broadly available, is the road to ruin.

[This blog post was deeply informed by conversations with Jonathan Glick, at whose feet I have learned more about the media industry than is probably good for me. Having said that, if I got anything wrong here, the blame is all mine.]