Saturday, March 19, 2011

More on that paywall

What a bizarre article from Slate's Jack Shafer. He points out all the critics of the NYT paywall, and then attempts to argue that getting rid of the free riders is worth it, if it keeps the paper financially solvent.

I've seen this a few times today: people (mostly older journalists, mostly newspaper reporters) mocking the paywall's opponents as hippy-dippy free culture activists who aren't thinking hard enough about the financial realities of the newspaper business.

But that's exactly the point: there's no evidence that paywalls are profitable for the publications behind them. Their readerships fall dramatically, ad revenue likely falls dramatically, and ultimately the whole enterprise is reduced in stature for very little or no financial gain. The paywall's opponents are not saying that because they think information wants to be free, or because they're all Lawrence Lessig fans, but because that's what all prior experience has taught us.

The mocking tone of paywall supporters is easy enough to explain -- they've turned the whole thing into a morality play. Greedy internet readers are taking advantage of faithful subscribers, and now the free-riders are getting their comeuppance! The NY Magazine article above is the worst of the lot: dripping with contempt at the fickle internet audience, which, it points out, knows nothing of old-fashioned virtues like loyalty. It's actually quite funny, because the moralizers (as always) are also self-appointed defenders of Cold Economic Realities.

Well, here's the cold economic reality. I don't have that much money. The Times does a lot of quality reporting. But so does the BBC. So does NPR. So does the Washington Post. I like the Times better than all of those outlets. But do I like it $200 more, annually? No way. And presumably, a lot of readers are in the same boat as me. Like, millions of them.

The Times is looking out for Number One. So are the fickle, faithless internet readers that will desert it. There's a collection of bitter journalists who want you to believe that people who refuse to pay for the Times are somehow morally deficient. But don't buy it. The Times just hasn't given those readers anything worth paying for yet.


  1. I remember my father once expressed skepticism about the business model of giving away content on the internet. I asked him what the gross subscription sales were for the family newspaper. Then I asked him what the printing and distribution costs were. Roughly equivalent, he said. Was that true of larger operations as well? Yes. So essentially the content was being given away, even in the dead tree version.

    Of course, back then you had to pay for classified ads, car dealers didn't have websites, and there were a lot fewer outlets for advertisers to use.

  2. Yeah, I think it's fair to say nobody knows how to make a comfortable profit selling internet news yet (well, other than going the Huffington Post route *shudder*). But it's striking how news outlets, faced with a choice between making not-enough-money and even-less-money, so often choose the latter, just because it's closer to how they used to do business.

    This is hardly an original thought, but the real error was papers letting Craigslist get as big it did. Classifieds are the one area where local operation has room to thrive online, but they completely missed that boat.