My online newspaper paywall conflict

If my posts, comments, tweets and Facebook messages about newspaper paywalls seem contradictory, it is because there is a conflict.

For 30 years I earned a living from journalism. Most of the time I have worked on newspapers. I have a vested interest in the industry’s profitability.

Journalist’s want projects like Rupert Murdoch’s paywall at The Times to work. It means we get paid.

If Murdoch gets online readers to subscribe, journalism has a healthy future. We don’t need to find new careers.

That would be good.

 

Murdoch-style paywalls are unlikely to work for everyday newspapers.

Information wants to be free” is nonsense. Information doesn’t want anything. Certain people want information to be free.

Many people aren’t willing to pay for online information, news or entertainment. If they are the overwhelming majority, then paywalled online newspapers will struggle to make money.

This is a problem because there isn’t enough advertising money to pay journalists to gather and write news.

Publishers can make more money from more obtrusive advertising, but that turns readers off.

So publishers are caught in a vice. At the moment, paywalls and subscriptions seem  the best route out of this mess.

The only other answer is for quality online publishers to find a way to charge advertisers a premium when their marketing material appears alongside good editorial. The problem here is to get premium rates without selling the editorial integrity.

12 thoughts on “My online newspaper paywall conflict

  1. Hi Bill
    I share your quandary. I want free access to papers as well but we need something to monitor. If papers die out it’s game over for the media monitoring companies. However I think for general news the picture is not all black. There will probably be further consolidation in online news. Do we really need half a dozen news sites displaying pretty much the same stories. What seems to be happening is that Stuff and NZH are slowly becoming something like the old portal idea. The have always been this to a large degree. Just as any lens is inevitably also a filter. News sites are becoming more the tinted glasses that bring the news to the masses.
    However we see it is less about unque about “content” so much as about followers. They used to be called readers. followers of their world view may be a more accurate description.The filtering efficiency of the papers is reflected in the follower stats.
    The problem with revenue is will be solved mainly by increasing the advertising value. The problem with this is the lack of unique news in newspapers.
    This is a greater problem with online news than it was with print. In print we pay for all the paper so we are inclined to read every page. Therefore the circulation/readership of the paper matters with respect to revenue from ads. Online no one reads the whole paper, so income is limited to hits per story. This is a huge drop in exposure for the content. This is the biggest problem.
    hence the great hope for ipads etc. People will buy they whole paper and read the whole thing. The advertising value is hence much greater as it is per ad x circulation not per impressions. Thus the advertising value goes up hugely. However the problem with all this remains the prisoners dilemma, but consolidation of news suppliers may solve this.

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    • I deliberately didn’t mention iPads because although they are an important new channel, ultimately they will perform like everyday computers along with a little extra revenue from app sales. There are a number of new iPad aggregation tools which do pretty much the same job as Google News pulling headlines and pictures together.

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    • This goes a long way to explaining the success of analytical magazines like The Economist, which appears to be even stronger since internet news took off. I’d be happy if newspapers became more analytical – maybe even moving from printing daily editions.

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  2. I too am waging an internal conflict. A recent discussion about the FT and The Times’ model on Boing Boing (http://bit.ly/a4p5N9) amused me because a number of the comments pointed out that content behind a paywall isn’t really publishing at all because publishing means making available to all.

    But if a random geezer came up to me in the street or on the bus wanting to read the print newspaper I subscribe to on the basis that it had been published for public consumption, I’d probably tell him where to get off (random geezers, of course, are always males).

    Bringing on hindsight at this point is redundant, but the crisis could have been abated if publishers (like record companies) had harnessed micropayments for their content from the beginning. I need a whole album about as often as I’m able to read an entire newspaper.

    But I’ll always pay for content written by writers I respect writing sensibly (or humorously) about subjects that interest me. Case in point: the early, free, Ricky Gervais podcasts promoted by the Guardian were good enough to convince me to pay for the later ones.

    No conflict there.

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    • I couldn’t agree more with the micropayments from day one argument for news AND music.

      One problem is the sheer availability of advertising inventory online – in print there were always limits. Online the supply is, in effect, infinite.

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  3. Maybe it is not about working through editors at all but journos working in the field of their interest (create your point of difference) and content going directly to readers through various mediums and direct to consumer. Not sure how journos would get paid but it needs to be very different to the current biz model and that can be generated by this transformational environment. And it will be about supply and demand for quality journalism. Once the supply dimishes the hunger for good quality coverage will be in demand and paid for? My 2 cents worth for what it’s worth.

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    • It’s funny that you should mention 2 cents.

      There are some journalists making money from micro-publications overseas. I don’t think many in New Zealand can make it pay.

      Suppose there was a mechanism to charge readers 2 cents each time they read a story. There isn’t – but work with me here.

      To earn a modest living of $1000 a week, you’d need 50,000 paying reads actually you’d need more like 60,000 because of hosting and traffic costs. There are only ever going to be a handful of sites in New Zealand doing those numbers.

      There are other ways for journalists to earn money online, but most of them boil down to being dishonest spivs flogging products rather than giving people useful information.

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  4. It is an interesting thing that people will happily fork out a few dollars for a copy of The Herald or The Dom, and then sit down and bitch to those around them about the poor quality of journalism in it. They’ll then do it again. And again. Ask them to pay online and they’ll bitch endlessly about you asking them to do that.
    There are behaviours we’ve developed over a few hundred years of print consumption, that we don’t think about, but hang on to regardless, but they do not apply to online, as it has developed its own “tradition” in a few short years. And that tradition is that everything should be free.
    That’s the real problem. There is no actual logic in those two differing behaviours, merely the reality of perverse human behaviour. So any payment system online develops must be an exercise in psychology, not logic, if it is to succeed.

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  5. Good post, Bill. I don’t necessarily agree with you—I’ve more or less decided that paywalls can’t work, but if someone can make money off of one, why not?—but your position is more toward that of a realist than someone on either side of the issue.

    What intrigues me about your post is this statement: “If [Rupert Murdoch] can get online readers to subscribe, journalism will have a healthy future and I don’t need to find a new career.” I’m curious: What makes you so sure that if a paywall works, journalism is saved? Classified ads—not subscriptions—were what made newspapers profitable during the golden days, so the idea that we could somehow create a new model where subscriptions pay for everything is a little out-of-left-field.

    Since you asked for ideas, I propose this: Several successful blogs here in the United States have begun either on newspaper websites or were conceived by journalists who left a traditional newspaper. Perhaps the one thing newspapers have left in terms of monetary value is their visibility (for instance, here in Seattle, everyone knows what The Seattle Times is). Rather than letting these blogs and creative thinkers slip through their fingers, what if newspapers were to act as incubators/springboards for blogs? I don’t have this perfectly worked out (maybe subsequent commenters can help me) but for a cut of ad profits, newspapers would host blogs and promote them, sparking some of them into legitimate popularity (think Mashable, I Can Has Cheezburger, etc.).

    It’s not unlike how rappers scout new rappers (e.g. Dr. Dre > Eminem > 50 Cent) and for the period of their contract, take a cut of what they make.

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    • “What makes you so sure that if a paywall works, journalism is saved?”

      I’m not certain it will work. I think it could work.

      I grew up in the UK. During my early years as a journalist there were a dozen major daily national newspapers in the UK.

      In those days the papers ran few advertisements – rarely more than a page or two in papers that could run to 40 pages – ads certainly took less than one tenth of the space. Publishers saw advertising as the icing on top of the cake. The real money was in copy sales.

      That model changed with advertising becoming more important. Papers grew bigger and hired more reporters etc.

      I think it’s possible to get back to a copy sales-lead business model. In fact I freelance for a title which operates exactly this way.

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  6. Former Sydney Morning Herald editor Alan Oakley had a good approach I read about once in a non-fiction book (I can’t remember what it was called). He said online was the place for hard and fast fact-based news and print was the place for longer form analysis after the fact.

    I still agree. If there’s an earthquake and tsunami near the Solon Islands you’ll hop online to one of the major news portals and read a handful of paragraphs about how strong it was, where it hit, whether there were casualties, how much damage, etc – information that’s so simple to collate you hardly even need a journalist.

    Then, if you’re interested in the deeper story of a topic (religious/historical causes of unrest in a given region, untangling the latest complicated legislation that’s dressed in too much rhetoric), you read a newspaper where a professional journalist researches, distills and presents facts in context.

    Newspapers can’t compete on straight fact any more (whether it’s a sudden natural disaster, celebrity gossip, etc). The market for analysis might be greatly reduced from the pre-Internet days when they had a monopoly on it, but it’s still there, and that’s who they should be chasing.

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    • This goes a long way to explaining the success of analytical magazines like The Economist, which appears to be even stronger since internet news took off. I’d be happy if newspapers became more analytical – maybe even moving from printing daily editions.

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