Thursday, March 17, 2011

The old media enters its death spiral, hopefully

Looks like March 28 is paywall D-day for the New York Times.

The Times paywall strategy:

-Make the people most likely to subscribe pay less.

-Make the most popular parts of the site free.

-A very high monthly fee.

-Set the number of free articles so high that only a handful of people will ever hit the paywall.

In sum, the primary effect appears to not be on very casual readers, but on people like me, who read regularly and often link to the site, but don't subscribe, and really can't afford to subscribe. I won't be doing that anymore if I can help it -- not out of principle, but because A. it's dangerous to link to a site that may not accessible to all readers, and B. I won't be using up my monthly allotment finding interesting stories on the site anyway.

The biggest loss will be the blogs -- primarily 538, in my case -- which I will be essentially incapable of reading. Of course, far more than other articles, blogs completely rely on crosslinking and open exchange of ideas. FiveThirtyEight and its ilk will now be participating in the online conversation from atop a high wall. Frankly, I would expect nothing less than a dramatic collapse of their traffic.

From a less personal perspective, all-in-all, the paywall was always and remains a horrible decision for the Times. As with Felix up above, I don't see any way that gained revenue from the tiny percentage of current traffic that will subscribe will eclipse lost revenue from a rapid slide in the paper's online stature. Not only will it lose its position as the go-to source for straight reporting, I would expect the paper to take a reputational hit commensurate with its diminished role. Ultimately, it's this second-order effect that has the potential to do the most damage. As the paper's status as the authoritative source for news drains away, people will stop linking to it and visiting it, not because doing so is impractical, but because they simply prefer other sources. Unlike other readers lost to the paywall, this a readership that cannot be easily restored, and the process is self-reinforcing.

It might be noted that the Times tried putting up a paywall of sorts before, and it was a disaster. Apparently, the people in charge felt that the problem wasn't with the concept of the paywall, but that it wasn't implemented right. Bluntly, I don't know of a single reason to believe this is true. It's difficult for me to swallow the idea that careful mechanical tinkering can reverse this failure instead of just ameliorating it.

It's worth surveying the attitudes that created this mess. I'm not surprised that the NYT management seems to think their dominant position in the news world is unassailable; right now, they certainly don't have any real competitors. But the fundamental mistake seems to be rooted in a couple of cognitive errors. First, there seems to be an assumption that there is something intrinsic about the Times that sustains its reputation, and makes it worth paying for while most other publications are not. Quality-wise, the Times is a newspaper without peers, don't get me wrong. And maybe during an era when all news came at a cost, the quality of the Times was, alone, enough to elevate it above competitors. But its indispensable quality today is largely a reflection of the degree to which its content is universally available. The paper publishes thousands of articles a month, and making them only available to people willing to pay a $200 yearly fee means that the great majority of its content will pass by, completely unnoticed. No matter how great that content is, it does not have some aura of inherent worth and desirability that will somehow project itself past the paywall and influence non-subscribers who never read it.

The other problem is a misunderstanding of the changing role of the news industry. The NYT is a big company, but it's not that big of a company, relatively speaking. This isn't Apple we're talking about. Obviously the paper needs to make enough money to cover operating expenses, but its most valuable asset isn't income through subscriptions or even ad revenue, but its centrality to the political and cultural dialogue. If the Times yearly revenue doubled because of the paywell (fat chance), but 90% fewer people read the paper, could anyone really consider that a success for the company? Paying customers come and go. The paper's stature and respectability have the potential to ensure it a certain permanence in the American intellectual firmament. We'll see how long that lasts.

I guess this is what happens when executives, trained in a world where maximizing subscribers was the path to success, end up in charge of what is essentially an Internet company. After all, the Times print operation is basically vestigial at this point. It's little more than a best-of collection from the website, published long after the most important or interesting items have been thoroughly disseminated through linking and browsing. But the Times, like so many other print operations, seems to see the website as a competitor to or -- in the best case -- supplement to the print edition. For them, the ideal website is one that functions in a way, and fills a role, that resembles a print newspaper as closely as possible. If you start with that premise, a paywall that cuts off large amounts of anonymous traffic in exchange for a handful of paid subscribers seems like a winning move.

Someone needs to disabuse them of this notion, and hopefully do it before the Huffington Post is the last man standing. And in a way, this Times fiasco might be the perfect opportunity. If the Times -- with its $40 million Paywall To End All Paywalls, its century-old reputation, and the best and most diverse content available anywhere in the world -- can't make it work, than surely nobody can. Surely media execs everywhere will have to rethink, and maybe embrace new, more Internet-friendly models. Surely they would have to realize that people in the business of writing for the public should first concern themselves with the business of getting the public to actually read their writing.

So for the time being, I guess I'm cheering against the Times. The faster and harder the paper crashes, the happier I'll be. Burn, Grey Lady, burn.


  1. The article seems to indicate that readers following links in through blogs don't have those page views count toward their limit. It's a horrible idea, but maybe it won't eliminate your ability to access content through your blogs (which makes it more horrible?).

  2. Yeah but the worry with a paywall is that the exact rules will change. For instance, there will probably be a lot of "blogs" emerging that basically exist to post links to Times articles (that's what happened last time they tried this). Obviously that's what the Times wants to avoid, and so it's hardly inconceivable that they'll rejigger their rules towards linking at some point.

    Plus, I think bloggers in general are reluctant to funnel their readers into the sort of informational dead-end end that a NYT link is going to become. Want to know more about something in a NYT story? Too bad! This is all you get!