Columbia Journalism Review: Free For All

05 Jun
June 5, 2012

For the last few days, I’ve been heartily engaged in the comments section of a couple CJR items that originated from the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s travails.  I advocate for the industry-wide adoption of online pay walls to sustain high-end journalism. Others regard this as a disastrous suggestion.

As the comments began to pile up, I saw some insight and a lot of argumentative fallacy.  People do love to call names.

But I kept at it, hoping to draw others into the fray.  Maybe even get CJR to use their publication to revisit at this moment the idea of news as a product and whether that product can — in any environment, and under any conditions, not merely today’s dystopic newspaper dynamic — command a price commensurate with its cost, or much of its cost  (residual advertising revenue still being present  both on- and offline).  The New York Times just reported that Wall Street analysts are saying subscription revenue from the paywall adopted by the NYT will turn the paper back into the black in 2014.   If that’s true, this moment might be a critical one for the rest of the industry to reassess.

I think the health, stability and professionalism of our newsgathering goes to the heart of what kind of a country we are going to be in twenty years.  And yes, I am worried.

So far, some smart comments and a good deal of self-reference, and, of course, some stuff that veers off-point.  But if you came here to this blog because of any of the writing or arguments about newsgathering and what it means, and you have firm opinions — especially if you are in the industry or a recent refugee — I’d urge you to get in there and keep it going.

A lot of arguments aren’t worth the time or the trouble.   And I say that as a man with some affection for an argument.  But this one, I think, is long overdue.

Original post:  http://www.cjr.org/the_kicker/david_simon_creator_of_the_wir.php

Counterargument:  http://www.cjr.org/the_kicker/why_david_simon_is_wrong_about.php

Again, the back and forth is down in the comments section of both posts.  Have at it.  Because I can’t think of any problem that I would more like to see solved and solved quickly.  If professional, high-end journalism survives as a counter to the institutional imperative in this country and around the world, I’ll be as happy to be proven wrong as right.   I think an industry-wide pay wall and the bundling of international, national, state and local news product is an inevitability, as television entertainment under the cable model has now proven itself a successful inevitability.  But if I am wrong, then great.  In so much as my worries are either unfounded, or some other online model will generate enough revenue to keep journalism a career for trained, ethical professionals and main the institutional gravitas of newsrooms, I would happily accept an alternative future.  It’s the present, though, that is unsustainable.  For a functional republic, anyway.

31 replies
  1. fxqjr says:

    some interesting comments from a recent Glenn Greenwald piece: The New York Times has had great success in relying on voluntary reader donations. Its subscription “paywall” is, by design, very easily circumventable by anyone who expends minimal effort, because that model is really a means of asking its readers to voluntarily support its journalism with donations. Andrew Sullivan’s efforts this year to rely exclusively on reader support produced such intense media attention precisely because everyone knows that reader-supported journalism is the one promising model for enabling different kinds of journalism to exist.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/reader-funded-journalism

    Reply
  2. derek says:

    Why would I pay for propaganda? i.e “All the news that’s fit to print”. Here in NZ, the newspapers have been proved to be biased towards the National party. There is hardly any investigative journalism. Institutions seem to do whatever they want, without scrutiny. So why would I pay for this dross? So I can read more about the Hobbit premiere? I don’t think so…

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  3. Isaac Boone Davis says:

    This is amazing. I’m writing to my hero, David Simon. But this is not a gushy fan letter. I work in the newspaper industry. In a very different capacity. I’m a door to door salesman. I try to sell subscriptions for a product that, as you well know, is given away for free online. I’ve always taken exception with season five of The Wire for this exact reason: the reason the business is dying has nothing to do with journalists fabricating stories, but everything to do with people wanting a product for free.

    Anyway, I had no idea about this site until today, when I read of the sad passage of Mr. McCullough. I’d love to enter the dialogue about this issue because I think I could give you a different perspective from the bottom up about the industry. For the record, I’m in favor of paywalls but I think the desire for a free product is already being overmatched by the sites which aren’t affiliated with newspapers (I.E. Cnn, Msnbc, bbc, etc.). I run into this disconnect every day, all day with thousands of individuals who see no irony at all in the statement “Oh, I just get my news online.”

    Reply
  4. Avinash says:

    The mention of an iTunes-style mcriopayment model’ in the article about The Economist twigged some ideas I read last night from Clay Shirky (apologies for the long quote):Apple’s ITMS (iTunes Music Store) is perhaps the most interesting example. People are not paying for music on ITMS because we have decided that fee-per-track is the model we prefer, but because there is no market in which commercial alternatives can be explored. Everything from Napster to online radio has been crippled or killed by fiat; small payments survive in the absence of a market for other legal options. What’s interesting about ITMS, though, it that it contains other content that illustrates the dilemma of the journalists most sharply: podcasts. Apple has the machinery in place to charge for podcasts. Why don’t they?[…]Meanwhile, back in the real world, the media business is being turned upside down by our new freedoms and our new roles. We’re not just readers anymore, or listeners or viewers. We’re not customers and we’re certainly not consumers. We’re users. We don’t consume content, we use it, and mostly what we use it for is to support our conversations with one another, because we’re media outlets now too. When I am talking about some event that just happened, whether it’s an earthquake or a basketball game, whether the conversation is in email or Facebook or Twitter, I want to link to what I’m talking about, and I want my friends to be able to read it easily, and to share it with their friends.This is superdistribution — content moving from friend to friend through the social network, far from the original source of the story. Superdistribution, despite its unweildy name, matters to users. It matters a lot. It matters so much, in fact, that we will routinely prefer a shareable amateur source to a professional source that requires us to keep the content a secret on pain of lawsuit. (Wikipedia’s historical advantage over Britannica in one sentence.)

    Reply
  5. Rebecca says:

    I don’t have a TV but love the Wire & Treme. I don’t ever buy paper newspapers but love to read specific news columnists online. Why can’t I just buy the content that I’d like to support like buying a book or a song? Digital downloads are simple & straightforward. Everything else seems bloated. The bundling of tons of cable content I don’t want plus outmoded hardware drives me nuts. So does paying for a firewall in addition to selling my eyeball time to advertisers. I think that the news & cable industries should pick one: free content with ads (not my first choice), or ad-free content to be paid for by the download. If people pirate, so be it. Go with the busking model: there will be those who pay more & those who will free ride & I bet the artists will make more in the end without as many framers/producers/marketers/editors/publishers/distributors taking a cut. Bundling cable & news insults the consumer to serve the middlemen. Let’s pay the great artists & journalists directly, please!

    Reply
  6. Adrian Parke says:

    Putting cynacism aside for one moment.

    Perhaps analogous to the bundled news paywall is the requirement of holding a TV license in the UK. This is to fund the BBC. Clearly a lot is wasted on crap, entertainment etc (but is often sold at profit across the world though). But it does fund independent news and journalism. It works out to be a little more than the $10 you advocate. Everyone loathes to pay it, as we do any charge. But it is mandatory, and policed very cheaply (technology has some benefit). We all pay and we all get great news content although not as much so locally.

    Is it incredulous to think that it could be a federal tax?

    I am liberal and don’t like being told anything is mandantory but sometimes we need protection from our own short-termism. I don’t like having to pay car insurance or health insurance but I am mandated by law.

    In reality we are easily distracted, we’d get over the $10 with the next sweet taste in our mouths.

    I know making it law would be like trying to get turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving, but if not thinking the current regime will go for it is the reason not to act, then all attempts to contemplate change are futile.

    Reply
    • Anna Tarkov says:

      Adrian, I fear this would be near impossible in these United States. This is the country with a legislature that recently fought to defund National Public Radio, who does amazing work, because it’s perceived among conservatives as having a liberal bias. Whether or not that’s true can be debated I suppose, but the point is that there is very little respect in today’s America for ANY kind of public good and that includes reporting.

      Reply
  7. Greg Golebiewski (@znakit) says:

    With so many people taking part in this, often, very passionate debate, my two cents (post #82, second part) can be easily overlooked. Nothing wrong with this, naturally.

    But, if I may, I would like to hear your opinion, David, on the economics of paywalls. I’ve been working with publishers and online payment providers for quite some time now, trying to develop a content monetization solution that is both profitable for the content creators and acceptable (or better yet popular) with the Web users, and it’s been a challenge.

    It is not that people do not want to pay. The problem is the huge diversity both of the type of content and people’s expectations and needs that makes any one solution (e.g. long term subs) often destroying the value of online assets already created more than adding any.

    If you look at paywall as a business, they are costly to start and maintain and their ROI, if you include the cost of capital, is very low. If you consider “opportunity cost,” their ROI is negative.

    Reply
  8. Anna Tarkov says:

    Hi David,

    I just wanted to drop you a note here as well. The last week has been wonderful. I agree that this is an important discussion and I know it will continue. I’m impressed by your desire to hash it out in full public view and I thank you for doing so. I too never met an argument I didn’t like. Society regards this is a character flaw. I’m glad you disagree.

    I’m also glad you’re open to other ways news organizations may generate revenue. I think open-mindedness is key in this time of transition and everything that can be should be tried.

    Fonally, the offer to have drinks if you’re ever in Chicago still stands. You should know though that I was born in the former USSR. Still, I’m sure you’re no slouch :-)

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Thanks. Very kind.

      The venue is an unruly one, and for some reason, some people are quick to let themselves off the leash on the internet in ways that they would never contemplate if they were in the room with other souls. I’m no shrinking violent when it comes to that stuff; I can tell someone to take a flying fuck as well as the next man and laugh at being told to do the same.

      It’s just that once a dynamic gets to that point, the arguments always suffer. I actually have met arguments I didn’t like. Some begin with such promise and they end with slurs and stupidity. I’ve seen good arguments wasted, so I tried hard to police this one early in the hope that it sustains itself and maybe goes somewhere, other than an echo chamber for me, or you, or Mr. Owens or anyone. Other people have joined in now. I hope it keeps going. Frankly, places like CJR and Poynter should be talking about nothing but this issue, and analyzing nothing but this issue. With journalism at this point, what else matters?

      As for me, I’ve retreated today, but I am writing a response to Mr. Owens ten points and to other critiques offered elsewhere on the paywall issue. I’ll take a breathe, read it back, and if I think it advances the discussion, I’ll send it to the guys at CJR. But regardless, I’m glad that other voices are banging on the argument now, which is always the point. I mean, it’s always the point until some consensus emerges for most of the participants. Then that becomes the ultimate point of the exercise, of course.

      Cubs fan? Or Sox? Or being an emigre, do you root for the Blackhawks only?

      Reply
      • Anna Tarkov says:

        By the grace of god or whichever divine entity you believe it, I met my future husband in 1999 and became a Sox fan because he was one. We lived far apart then and he used to listen to the games while driving me home. It was a good year for the Sox and I could tell he was really into whatever was happening on that radio. He was born and raised on the Southwest side, near Midway Airport and that’s pretty much Sox territory. To this day I thank god that I didn’t meet and fall in love with a Cubs fan. There is enough misery in the world already without unnecessarily adding to it :-)

        Like other immigrants, I didn’t understand baseball at all until it was explained to me. I thought watching it on TV was more boring than watching golf. But like many other immigrants before me, hungry for a foothold in American culture, I came to love baseball and still love it today above all other sports. There is nothing that is to me more quintessentially American. I’ve tried to develop the same love for football to no avail. I can watch it and enjoy it, but it’s just not the same. Of course lately my attention has been off sports altogether. I had my fist child 8 months ago and as I’m sure you know, it kind of takes over your life.

        I agree with you that CJR, Poynter and the like need to pound more on the issue of how news organizations are monetizing their content (or not), how things are progressing in either case, dissecting successes and failures, etc., etc. I’ve actually discussed this with someone recently and they said they would try to make the case to some friends of theirs who run prominent tech websites that I should be put on this “beat,” so to speak and report on it day in and day out. If you think about it, it’s actually kind of insane that someone doesn’t do it already, at least not in a detailed, nuts and bolts fashion. PaidContent writes about these issues quite a bit actually. Not sure if you’re aware of them, but here’s their site: http://paidcontent.org/

        I’m glad to hear that you’re writing a response to Howard. As you say, we need to keep discussing this issue. In the discussion itself, there is enormous value. I believe this to be true even when there’s the occasional barb here and there. But then I was raised on the culture of the Internet and thus my view is different from yours. I actually started out in journalism as a political blogger, writing about the (I still can’t believe I’m saying this) FORMER mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley.

        So I was one of those “parasites” linking to “real” journalism and making snide comments ;-) But then something happened. I realized that I really liked explaining political news to my readers and the problem was that the news as it was written wasn’t explanatory enough or didn’t give them a reason to care. The way I wrote about it made them care. Why couldn’t the original reporting do that? I wondered. So I left blogging behind to pursue being a reporter. I was so naive! I thought I could almost singlehandedly change the way politics was reported. That was in 2009 so I think you can imagine what my level of success was: nonexistent. I still harbor those dreams. But having learned about the state of media, I now I want to take a role in fixing the business, hence my desire to write about media over politics these days.

        Reply
  9. Obamney says:

    I’m not in the industry, I’m just a consumer. I’ve given up on newspapers for any kind of meaningful analysis and go with magazines and books.

    As someone who could not believe that Nixon got re-elected by a huge margin despite the Watergate crime reporting, I think your comments about not being able to solve big problems without well informed citizens is pitiful……loveable, but pitiful. There is no one so blind as one who will not see. And unfortunately, most Americans do not want to see, even when some enterprising journalist lays the information right in their laps.

    Sorry for the buzzkill, but I don’t think paywalls are the problem.

    Reply
  10. Ben says:

    I’m 24 and here’s how I get my news throughout the day:

    1. Rush out and listen to NPR between 7:30 and 8 during my half-hour car commute. I get to hear the Morning Edition business news every day, and if I’m lucky and running late, a good feature piece from 8:05-8:15. Steve Inskeep is in Tunisia right now. It’s fascinating. I’ve also been late for work every day this week.
    2. Read my email and open Twitter. Scan what I missed while sleeping. Interesting tweets get read. This morning, I read about the differences in Wisconsin recall money in Mother Jones from a David Axelrod tweet.
    3. Read my local daily, the Hartford Courant, online. For free, since there’s no paywall. And by read, I mean learn about the circumstances of the suburban heroin dealer in the McDonalds parking lot, since the suburban cops are the only ones who put out media releases when they bust a heroin dealer. OCCASIONALLY something really, really f-ing interesting happens and I wish I had become a journalist.
    4. Check Google News or the HuffPo to make sure there’s not some glaring national headline Twitter hasn’t told me about.
    5. Read updates from Rick Green and Colin McEnroe, the Courant’s only blog-engaged political columnists. There used to be 3, but Susan Campbell just took the buyout. Rick gives better little updates about local politics on his blog everyday than the paper does. Colin gives good insight from a veteran political reporter and I agree with his politics usually.
    6. Monitor Twitter throughout the day. When stuff happens, I hear about it and read about it there. I might read about it in the Times, the Inquirer, a blog, the Post, anywhere I see it.
    7. Get home and recycle the Wall Street Journal off my front stoop. My landlord canceled his subscription a year ago, but they won’t stop delivering it 6 days a week. For free. Sometimes I use it to light my grill. Sometimes I read it. But by then, most everything in it is old news.

    My point in all that is there’s absolutely no way I can afford to get news from all of those different sources if they ALL cost me money. And I can’t choose one because I get local, regional, national and worldwide news from all different places. My grandma used to get 7 newspapers delivered to her apartment. It made her go broke and she learned how to use a computer in her 70s to keep getting her news.

    I’m not saying all this to argue against paywalls. I get that good news costs money to produce and I think it is the absolute worst thing for our democracy that classic investigative journalism is dying a rapid death. I’m saying that the world has changed and its unrealistic to expect each local paper to have their own individual wall. It just won’t work. It works for the Times and the WSJ partially because they are international papers, as the CJR rebuttal suggests. But mostly its because they kept producing GREAT content throughout the tough times. I would pay for them, because I know I’m getting good stuff for my money. But introducing a paywall tomorrow without rebuilding the capacity for good news they once had would be the final nail in the Courant’s coffin.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear your comment on two things that I think have been lacking in this discussion, both in your piece, the rebuttal and the comments:

    The role of media de-regulation in this calamity. Ask any Courant alumni/buyout taker and they will tell you the Tribune is the prime cause of the paper’s demise and since they also own your Sun, I would think you’d have an opinion. They wouldn’t have been allowed to own the Courant and the Sun (and the LA Times, etc) 20 years ago. Free internet is killing journalism! What about non-local control and shareholder-driven pressure on multi-national corporations?

    The role nonprofit media could play in the future. Here in CT, there’s some awesome, awesome journalism being perpetrated by the CT Mirror, who covers exclusively state government, and the <a href="http://newhavenindependent.org"<New Haven Independent whose hyper-local angle on everything from cop workarounds, school board meetings, city elections, coverage of the delegation at the Capitol is a ton of fun to read. Both these guys are funded primarily from support from private charitable foundations. Both of them give starts to some excellent young journalists. So what is it exactly about journalism that makes it necessarily the product of a for-profit company? Why does it need to not only break even but make money for owners and shareholders? What if the profit motive behind newspapers was part of the old model and we thought a little more outside the box about the future?

    Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing your response.

    Reply
  11. Jack says:

    What makes you sure people are actually willing to pay for this news? In the old days, people paid for a bundle of information. You got news, sports scores, weather, coupons, etc. This model made sense when delivery costs were high. Delivery on the Internet is costless–it makes little sense to continue bundling information the way Major Metro Newspapers did in the past. People read information based on topic, not geography (although those things may sometimes overlap–for instance, sports).

    The Internet has without a doubt increased the quality of information disseminated in nearly every topic, save local news. But the essentially costless form of delivery–and the ease with which people can move between the websites they read–has allowed for a disaggregation of all these topics. I’m no longer limited to reading the TV critic my local editors decided to stick me with, for instance. I can read Alan Sepinwall at HitFix and Todd VanDerWerff at the AVClub, who provide much more in-depth analysis than we ever got in a daily paper. The same goes for the quality of economics coverage, sports, and many other topics on the Internet. With costless delivery, it makes absolutely no sense to bundle with local news, as one needed to in the past.

    So you’re left with a very stripped down product–just local news (or in your version, local news packaged with some other organization’s international and national news). But even then, it makes little sense to continue bundling it like you did in the past. If you don’t need to invest in a big printing plant or delivery trucks, there’s no longer economies of scale in covering large areas. The organization covering Baltimore doesn’t necessarily need to cover all the suburbs.

    Further, you talk a lot about newspapers protecting their copyright. I have no problem with that–I pay for plenty of quality journalism I don’t really need to, because the organizations put the stories online for free. But how much is that copyright protection worth? Newspapers can copyright their literal words, but they can’t copyright the news itself. Even with the strongest paywall one could create, there’s nothing stopping someone from summarizing the article and adding their own analysis. And the value added to the reader often comes from the analysis, not the news itself.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      You’re coming into the party in mid-swing. Your questions are all germane and answers, and arguments with those answers, and arguments with those answers to those arguments all abound on the CJR sites. Hit the links and engage.

      Best,

      Reply
      • Jack says:

        I’ve read the relevant materials, but still think you’re missing the key of costless Internet delivery. You keep referencing the bundling of cable, but the delivery mechanism is entirely different. If I want my content out on cable, I have to negotiate with cable providers–I can’t just reach the people directly. If I want my content on the Internet, I can do so with ease. This leads to disaggregation. A la carte providers of information in each subject area could always undercut you. Most consumers will save money and benefit that way (and receive much better information on almost all topics than they did in the heyday of newspapers). If bundling were a sustainable business strategy in the absence of certain conditions, why don’t we see it proliferate everywhere? I suppose Honda, for instance, could require us to buy both a motorcycle and car in order to purchase either from them, but it’s pretty clear why that would be a destructive strategy.

        Further, given your concern about keeping institutions in check, why should consumers be so willing to accept coordinated, cartel-like behavior from the media industry in controlling the dissemination of information?

        Finally, I’ve yet to see your answer re: copyright protection. The information, not the words are valuable. And information can’t be copyrighted. There’s nothing stopping someone from summarizing your article in their own words.

        I’ll cross-post this on the CJR blog.

        Reply
      • Rufino says:

        I just keep wondering who’s buynig and what’s being sold. The news and commentary stuff has never been profitable as far as I know, it’s always just been a way of getting sellable eyeballs. As a number of news paywalls over the years have shown. The benefit to any defector is so huge that I can’t imagine it not happening. I see the paywall talk as closer to a bunch of kids down the river going you jump no you jump first maybe one of them will, maybe not. Maybe whoever jumps will survive, maybe not.Even News Limited can’t stop all the competitors, but I do wonder whether this is pointed at socialised media. When it fails will Rupert point at the ABC/BBC/CBC and demand that the government stop driving bought media out of business? I think those media are the main threat News Ltd faces right now, mostly because people actually want to consume them. If he can get scale them even further back there’s less competition, and maybe that will help them survive into the internet age a little longer.Because underlying all of this is the rise and rise of the internet. With the problem that the net is not a concentrator of attention the way traditional media is, but a diffuser. People today have more sources of information and more competition for their attention than they’ve had before, and that shift is not slowing down. The cost of that technology continues to drop, and the fragmentation means that it’s now both possible and profitable to just sell (for example) classified advertising directly, removing the need to provide filler. I mean journalism .I’ve seen this in a range of areas, and it goes the same way every time. A radical change in both the cost of creation and the cost of distribution means that new entrants arrive and wipe out the existing structure, putting in place a much larger group of cheaper suppliers. Most notably the death of the music industry with the advent of sheet music printing, player pianos, records, LP records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, FM radio, CDs and again with MP3s (it’s died more often than most cartoon characters).

        Reply
    • Georgi says:

      David, thanks for your comenmt. You’re in the paywall systems business and I’m in the newsroom advertising systems business, so we’re naturally going to have quite different perspectives. (The good news for our clients is that we’re both working to drive their top-line revenues.) For now I’m still betting on advertising over paywalls, but if your model proves to be the winner, I’ll be happy to eat my words (publicly). In fact, I may have to do one better, and recommend your systems to my clients! But I think paywalls are a mistake, for the reasons I cited. Thanks BTW for the info on Press+. I look forward to following your progress and seeing how you do in other markets. Best of luck, Rich Julius

      Reply
  12. Dr. S says:

    I want to pay for the news. I want to support the journalists in my community who report the news and come to my classroom. But this has been my experience with the Baltimore Sun:

    1) I subscribed to the Kindle edition for about a year, but found that the folks in Chicago never uploaded special items like the Sun magazine. Soon they started to forget entire sections and other important elements. For example, your story on Gene Cassidy was uploaded without a byline.

    2) I subscribed to the paper version again last week. Of the first week, I received only four editions.

    3) I called to cancel the paper version and subscribe to the digital edition. This was on a Friday. I was told my digital subscription could not be activated for 24 hours and that I would have to call a third-party vendor on Saturday to activate it. I did…and they were closed. When I called back on Monday I was told the third-party vendor sent out activation emails only once a week, on Wednesdays. Fortunately, they took pity on me and helped me activate my account right away, since I’d already waited three days.

    4) And as it turns out, the Sun’s mobile subscription version of the paper and its app are even worse than the Kindle edition at skipping content. Today’s food section cover story is nowhere to be found on either. Neither is last week’s food section cover. Who knows what else I’m missing out on.

    I am willing to pay for the news, but these guys have got to get their act together if a paywall has any chance of being successful.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Agreed. There is little defense for the current, post-apocalyptic version of the regional metropolitan daily newspaper.
      Again, even if the industry does take shelter from the storm and protects copyright as a whole, it will be a long road back to quality.
      They’ve gone for years in precisely the wrong direction of cost-cutting and dimunition of product.

      Reply
    • Max says:

      Wishing all paywals gone is a non-starter. It is also short-sighted. And the case of the Financial Times is as good a place as any to see why.What’s the Financial Times’ main ciitepotmon? The Wall Street Journal. Both are behind paywalls. Both address an affluent customer base that relies on the information in their day-to-day jobs. (Which means they can deduct subscriptions as business expenses.) Neither relies on eyeball traffic because as specialist publications they offer easily identifiable value and authority in their content. They’re not just shoveling out Reuters’ and AP reports with minimal reformatting.In other words, they earn their keep.And they earn their keep because the people who need the content understand that without the paywall fees the content would not be there at all: useful financial and business news doesn’t just rain down from the heavens in preformatted AP feeds. A lot of it comes from expensive proprietary sources. It is also the kind of content that doesn’t draw enough eyeballs to survive off banner ads.People *will* pay for content worth paying for.But they will *only* pay for worthwhile content; just putting up a paywall around content available elsewhere isn’t going to achieve much as the Murdochs are discovering.Another paywall-site worth discussing that you never hear any talk about is ESPN’s INSIDER. It’s US$40 a year, not tax-deductible, been around for ages, and includes a subscription to ESPN’s print mag (whether you want it or not) which launched *after* INSIDER had been around awhile. (Probably to level the playing Field with their magazine-based competitors.) Nobody is rallying the peasants to storm ESPN HQ over *their* paywall. Because ESPN customers understand that, like everything else in business and tech (c.f; DRM), paywalls are neither inherently good nor evil.Pretending otherwise is naive or disingenuous; they can *enable* products that could not exist without them (Library ebook lending without DRM? Really? Not on this planet. That’s barely doable *with* DRM. Look at MacMillan’s refusal to allow it.) The bulk of ESPN’s business resides behind the paywalls of cable TV fees (and XBOX LIVE Gold); expecting them to offer-up the same content on the net for eyeball traffic only would be asking them to commit financial suicide. For them, paywalling a portion of their content (the part *not* available anywhere else) enables them to maintain and offer the rest openly relying solely on web-adds to pay the freight. Without INSIDER fees, there likely wouldn’t a content-rich ESPN.COM.Other publications also follow this dual-tier paywall model; off the top of my head, I can name SCIENCE NEWS, THE ECONOMIST, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN All come from the print world and offer up full online content free to print subscribers that is segregated from their free-to-all-comers website. It’s a balancing act that works; you don’t see much whining over *their* paywalls.We all like free stuff, but There Is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch; everything has a price. And sometimes the price of free is not having it at all. Paying customers understand this; they understand that direct payments are what enable that particular operation to exist at all. Paywalls serve a purpose when used properly. The Murdochs of the world may not understand the rules that define properly yet but the customers do. The borders of their paywalls need adjusting as they realize charging for everything that used to be free isn’t going to get them anywhere. Eventually they’ll sit down and figure out what their customers will be willing to directly pay for (in cold hard cash) and what is only worth indirect, eyeball-based payment. Their current policy is merely stupid, not evil.Give it time and they’ll get it. Just don’t expect them to give up on the paywall completely. Paywalls are here to stay. If anything, judging by the success of content sales in the Apple iPXXX ecosystem, paywalls are a growth business. And given that Apple disallows subscription, that growth is going to come at full list price.Now *that* is a development worth griping over.

      Reply
  13. Adam says:

    “Because I can’t think of any problem that I would more like to see solved and solved quickly.”

    I can think of plenty worse problems in the world, to say the least.

    But more to the point, pay-walls are the path to death. There will never realistically be a controllable environment where a cartelcan negotiate and efficiently enforce a paywall club. Digital walls will be circumvented. If the papers I read online where to adopt paywalls I would either look elsewhere or seek out pirated versions (which are extremely simple to make and distribute). The only feasible way forward is a mix of advertisement, habitual paper subscribers, yearly donation events and some form of tax funded means for qualitative journalism.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Well, three things:

      1) I’m about process. Meaning, I don’t think any other, bigger problems begin to get solved until they are first carefully and properly defined by a body politic. And I don’t think that begins to happen until they carefully and rigorously documented by a free and healthy press. So while you might want to proceed past the more prosaic struggles of the Fourth Estate and chase down world hunger or global unrest, I would argue that we’re going nowhere on any of that until we understand — with clarity and with accuracy — the nature of the problems.

      2) If paywalls are the path to death, then may I ask to what what the absence of paywalls has led. Because from the point of view of professional journalism, it seems very much like…death.

      3) Are you not at all ashamed coming to this moment and announcing, as if it is a point of clever pride, that you have no problem stealing something that requires the sweat of others? Do you also illegally download music? Do you snag films and television from illegal download sites? When you want to read a book, do you go get an illegal e-book download off the internet rather than walking into a bookstore and paying for the intellectual property? Does this delight you? Do you think you are that much smarter and more deserving than the man or woman who may have spent months or years laboring on that book?

      That many people do this is unsurprising to me. That from time to time they announce their dishonesty and, frankly, their dishonor, by announcing the fact as if it is devoid of actual moral failure is more notable, I think.

      At this point, having shed a lot of the more ornate ethical commentary, I can safely boil down my rules for living honorably to a short list of three:

      1) God is not in play. It’s just us.
      2) The time-tested Golden Rule
      3) Leave the world better than you find it.

      Two and three means I don’t steal. Not anything, not from anyone.

      Reply
      • Adam says:

        None of what follows will likely sound acceptable to you and this being your blog I will not push it further but here is a short reply. Yes I have downloaded movies, music, television shows and books too. I simply don’t consider those acts moral transgressions at all. I also buy concert tickets, go to the movies and buy more books than I have time to read. There is no pride or delight or any emotion whatsoever in the downloading itself. It is merely a quick and easy logistic around a legal intellectual property regime running amok. The golden rule bans making an exception of yourself and I don’t. Whatever I produce that others can copy I’m happy if they do and when I code I publish the result as free open source software. I hope no one who copies feels any shame about it.

        Peter: the NYT online access paywall in practice functions as a special tax on the portion of readers who aren’t as computer experienced as the rest. That is not sustainable because people become more experienced.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          Well, it’s acceptable to you, at any rate.

          The golden rule — the Hillelite version, which I find the most pragmatic — says that which is harmful to you, do not to others.

          When people download my work illegally, they deprive my sponsors of a revenue stream. It is that revenue stream that convinced those sponsors
          to continue to allow me to produce my work. Right now, HBO executives are deciding whether the people who work on Treme — hundreds of them — get to finish that project with a final season. It would certainly be advantageous if all of those who downloaded the episodes illegally had instead subscribed to HBO or purchased the DVDs.

          If I use someone else’s intellectual product and they seek a price for that product, I pay the price. As I expect the same. To avoid that responsibility would be, um, a theft. And dishonest. Everything else, as Hillel then said, is commentary. Or rationalization.

          Reply
        • Rota says:

          David H The scenario you oultine is probably what certain agents have in mind. The internet is a young medium and bears resemblance to other young media, particularly radio. Before the commercialization and concentration of radio it was thought of as a people’s medium’, accessible, cheap, diverse..It’s worth bearing in mind that copyright is coming under increasing strain. Copyright as we understand it originates in the early 19th century at the behest of advocates such as Wordsworth. Neither he, nor those who wrote the laws, envisaged a world of digitally reproducable, instantaneously global media of various permeatations. Nor could they understand that sometime in the near future the commerical corporation would win the status of a person and thus be able to own copyrights effectively countering the rationale for copyright in the first place..An increasingly small cluster of corporations own an increasingly large chunk of the culture. They are also campaigning to have copyright extended further and further. Add to this the strange tactics whereby traditional remedies are patented and we may end up with a scenario in which all cultural artefacts are owned by a small group of interests. The concept of fair use may be eroded behond utility and we may all have to pay a fee each time we use anything anywhere anyhow..Or at least that might be what the floors full of legal staff at Time-Warner and News Ltd strive for.

          Reply
    • Peter says:

      The NY Times pay wall, which is here referenced as a successful example, is designed to be easily circumvented. You get to read twenty articles free a month, but if you’ve a mind to read for free, and a small degree of competence, you can manually edit the URL for an article to reload the page and view the article without the paywall ad blocking it.

      The point is to encourage purchase of a subscription and not coerce it, and as a model it has apparently been successful. It is reasonable to argue that such an unreliable method could not be used by anything other than a large and prestigious news organization, but it’s still there as a successful model for others to follow. When you get down to brass tacks, all payment for anything other than basic necessities is voluntary. There’s always the option to do without. But the success of the current iteration of the NYT paywall would indicate that the news is something that enough people are willing to pay for for the organization to survive.

      Reply
      • Hugo says:

        Rich, re Piano: the first month of operations in Slovakia we geeetarnd over €40k revenue. Since then we are gaining both subscribers and revenue. Our aim is modest, in the first calendar year of operation (which will be May 2 this year) we would like to achieve .5%-1.5% conversion from free news readers. I can assure you we are on target. We also launched in Slovenia this January and first month operational revenues were more than €26k. Piano only puts SOME content in the pay system, not all. Neither page views, unique users or advertising revenue is affected by publishers adopting the Piano system. Part of our job is helping publishers decide what works and doesn’t work in Piano’s system. Finally, if you think that pay-walls don’t work, you’re mistaken. Press+ has implemented 285 pay-walls since its first implementation in Sept. 2011. They plan an additional 185 by the end of 2012. Gannett will put up paywalls on ALL of its newspapers by the end of 2012 (USA Today excepted). Newspapers in 30 US states will have pay-walls, on the web, and 20% of the almost 1500 newspapers in the US, by the end of 2012 will have some sort of pay-wall. I should think in the year 2013 it will become increasingly difficult to read good journalism without some sort of payment. And by 2015 I expect all news to be paid for in some fashion or another. It might not be on the web, it may be tablets, but it won’t be free. Those days are over.

        Reply

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