If You Build It, We Should Pay (And Often Do)

In Uncategorized on June 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm

It’s not clear where the expectation that if it’s on the Internet, it should be free first popped up but it’s a belief that’s taken hold and driven people to the point of madness.

Imagine that if all the time spent debating whether or not there should be pay walls and if there are how big should they be and should there be moats around them and what if we put windows in them and then what color should the shutters be was devoted to something like curing cancer or fixing a hole a mile down that’s been spewing out oil for more than a month.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, strikes me as an otherwise sensical person who has been grabbed by the madness.

“If you erect a universal paywall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content,” he said in a speech in January.

On Charlie Rose, he said: “I think it is a very profound statement journalistically to want to put a universal barrier between you and the way the rest of the world is going to work.”

And then again, last month. He said that paywalls could lead the industry to “sleepwalk into oblivion….If you erect a paywall around your content you kind of go into a vault of darkness.”

Actually, no. If you erect a paywall around your content, you’re merely trying to make sure that you can come up with some money to pay the people who create the content. The profound statement is that you recognize quality content requires some sort of investment.

Or, as New Yorker Editor David Remnick said in discussing his belief why a paywall is necessary:

“I was going to be damned if I was going to train 18-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 25-year-olds, that this is like water that comes out of the sink,” he said recently.

Remnick has said that while he can see a rationale in giving readers headlines and “the most superficial sort of news” for free, but if readers are going to get the sort of depth they expect from publications like The new Yorker or The New York Times “it stands to reason they will have to pay for it. And I really think the demand, and the readers, are there. I think there are millions of people who want something deeper than headline news.”

While it may be a little before we know if Remnick’s estimate is on target (or low or high), the fact is people are paying for content.

Just look at how some iPad apps are doing.

The Wall Street Journal has 10,000 customers paying each month for access, the Australian saw 4,500 downloads in its first three days of availability.

GQ has sold more than 57,000 copies of the app version of itself.

Then there’s Wired Magazine, which has received a lot of praise for its app, which has already sold tens of thousands of copies.

And with Adobe releasing the software that Wired used to make the app, hopefully we can expect more along those lines.

Meanwhile, Advertising Age reports that Bonnier will be selling the iPad versions of their magazines (Popular Science, Popular Photography, et al…) for more than they charge for the print subscriptions and they’re not going to be alone in that model.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear customers will pay for trusted, quality content,” the magazine quotes Time Inc CEP Ann Moore as having said.

The fact is that there are websites that are mostly amalgams of opinion and, by and large, those sites don’t pay people because, really… the same investment is not needed to get people to opine.

But when you have people spending hours, researching interviewing, reporting, that requires an investment on the people supplying the content and the people who want to consume the content.

Information may be free but gathering it, presenting it… that requires an investment.

And I, for one and hopefully others, am willing to pay.

  1. It’s not that people won’t pay. It’s more a question of how many people will pay. It’s fine to mention that the Wall Street Journal has 10,000 subscribers online, but what tiny fraction is that compared with their print subscribers, to say nothing of newsstand circulation? Sure, the Wall Street Journal is fine and likely worth the investment, but there’s dozens of business blogs I could be reading that will give me deep reporting for nothing. And more than that, the number of ways for people to find highly relevant information for free expands every year. At this point I get at least half my business news from people posting links on Twitter, and the quality of the analysis available to me suffers not at all for it, much less the data itself. And besides, what is analysis but opinion, really? When it comes to 5000 word articles diving deeply into a subject, requiring vast amounts of research and interviews, I’m no more likely to be interested in the subject than with any other article, and there is simply so much content produced every day that even so I spend more time reading now than I ever did with buying newspapers and magazines. Fact is, it’s more relevant to my interests, and I don’t pay a thing for it.

    The simple fact is that the old system can’t keep up. I won’t pay to get through a pay wall, and neither will most people my age. Absolutely there’s a crisis in journalism these days, but you hardly have to be a business genius to see that pay walls are no solution at all. WSJ has 10,000 subscribers, but how many millions were using their site each day before the pay wall went up? And they’re a marquis brand. Online subscribers will never make up the difference with what print has lost. It’s hardly madness to point out the obvious. And what about the pay wall destroying the viral effect, so necessary to a successful online venture? How are you supposed to attract new subscribers out of a vast sea of information when they have no idea you exist, and they’ll never see your best stuff? That’s what Rushbridger meant about the vault of darkness. You might hate it, but that’s the world we live in now, and tilting at windmills means nothing to the market forces at work here.

    The fact is that despite the millions of readers willing to pay, there are many millions more that will abandon you at the first hint of a pay wall, that have already abandoned print publications. You can talk about ‘training’ people, but the internet was full of free information long before the professional journalists came to town. iPad subscriptions and pay walls are well and good, but clutching to them as if they’ll save the ship is foolish. They are life rafts, able to save a few brands at best, and provide at best only a modest revenue stream suitable for only the most innovative, frugal business plans. The market has changed, pulled the rug right out from under you. And ‘quality’? How can anyone tell what’s quality, what’s ‘trusted’ in this day and age? If you trust what the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or even the New York Times says, you’re a damn fool. They’re all giant corporations with a vested interest in the status quo, there’s no trusting any of them. In this day and age you take everything with a grain of salt. Some of it’s well written, but that’s true of the free stuff as well, especially the stuff that manages to make its way to you through social networks.

    The old world is gone. I’m one of the youngest to really remember when there wasn’t vast amounts of useful, well-written information easily available on the internet, and I’m saving probably $200 that I was spending on newspapers, magazines, television and books each month as a result, and have been for almost a decade. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. And neither will anyone else.

    You want subscribers to pay your way when print is really on its way out? Prepare to fill a niche, target yourself extremely well, and consistently produce the very best stuff available (and don’t kid yourself). Otherwise it’s just not gonna work out for you. There’s way too much general info around, and it’s gotta be well-written just to be seen, much less paid-for.

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