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Monday, March 21, 2011

Paywall without leave.

Because he’s all smart like that, Ben Kunz on Though Gadgets looks at stuff mere mortals ignore. Like... how the New York TImes is going to start making more money online off all you people abandoning it for free news elsewhere. Least that’s their theory. Check it out though because it definitely breaks down how publishers in general should approach pay models.

There are two dynamics that keep jumping out at me about this topic however.

First, and it may be a bigger one for another time, but news outlets on television like et al. don’t seem to have this same problem with their online content divisions and making money, because their TV ad revenue clearly supports the digital side. Any ads run on their site have to be pure profit, no? Easier said than done, but the obvious solution in this case would be to say to the NYT or Wall Street Journal that they should just start their own TV channels.

Maybe they just can’t bring themselves to go with a personality-driven style of reporting that’s seems more fiercely in vogue than it ever was because it’s beneath them. I’ll give concede that point, because Anderson Cooper gets to me too.

The second dynamic though is a deeper dive about content-producing industries in general faced with changes to the very technology that delivers that content and how its distribution is being undermined.

Regardless of which point you agree or disagree with, both start with this 800 lb. gorilla: When it comes to content of any sort, people want free.

Entertainment and publishing industries have had trouble with this for a long time. Well before Napster was legit > not legit, content was always pirated in one form or another, from bootleg tapes to giant satellite dishes that gave you hundreds of channels for free. Emerging and underground technologies always win out not because they’re ahead of current laws, but they circumvent pay models put up to profit from them.

It seems as if organizations like the NYT though are caught up in answering a question that consumers aren’t asking. They’re mostly worried about how to keep their content from being given away, promoting their own brand, and making money.

Do users care about any of that? Do people look at it like it’s the NYT’s news... or just the news. To them, it just happens to be found there.

This can’t be just one newspaper figuring out a different way to capture migrating traffic, but everyone in the same industry being on the same page. That way, it won’t matter that I go over to another news source, because they’re also going to be charging. (This was the approach Rupert Murdoch has taken with his London paywall that aims to get large sites migrating over with others hopefully following suit.)

Given a scenario where everyone charges, then I would have no real incentive to leave the or in favor of somewhere else. I know their content is among the best, so why leave. Going to a Drudge wouldn’t matter because his links would likely lead to a story snippet from those same sources that require subscription.

But everyone isn’t on the same page, and with the shorter attention spans found in our current collective mediapocalypse, I don’t see people having trouble accessing the shorter form content they want and need. There are simply too many free sources supplying the fix. I’d even go so far as to say that the resulting change in the physiology of how what we want to consume has allowed us to look to sources for information that we might not have in the past.

(That’s a fancy way of saying how and what we consume in terms of news has changed, but it’s like saying okay, instead of paying for that NYT piece, I can get similar takes from CNN or a Salon and be okay with how they cover a given topic.)

Here’s a different solution that goes against my “people love free” declaration.

There’s a perception that the net is free. Except, well, we pay for that *free* each month. Rather than piss people off with an additional subscription model every time they turn around, shift it further up in the food chain to the source: ISPs. How much do we pay for services in general that include obscure fees, would people really notice an opt-in “newspaper” fee?

How much do we pay to have CNN included in our lineup yet nobody bitches about it. If anything, when it comes to cable fees, the first words out of our mouths when there’s a service interruption are usually “I’m paying for it but can’t get it.”

Clearly we’re already prepped for a pay model.

Work out a deal with ISPs to license content the way studios license content to cable channels. That way, I pay (X) amount per month to access my news site of choice with whatever device I choose, be it browser or mobile device (iPad, iPhone, etc.). I might not pay $9.99 a month from the NYT itself, but I could see paying a flat rate for a bunch of news sites (or à la carte pricing).

Publishers can still sell ad space on the sites too (or offer an opt-out fee to users who want ad-free content), but in this case, at least they won’t be depending on *just* their ad revenue for survival.

The way things are going, a pay model needs to be put in place across the entire industry or not at all, because as it’s set up now, pay just becomes a reason to leave, not stay.


Anonymous said...

That's what ESPN3 does--ISPs pay for it, and going to only gives you useful content if you're coming from an approved (read:paying) ISP.

Will Knott said...

“I’m paying for it but can’t get it.” -- intresting choice of workd and its also the major stumbling block for the Rupert Murdoch London paywall...

In the UK all owners of a TV set is by law required to have a TV license. That money goes to funding the actions of the BBC. So if the BBC puts up a paywall around its content... “I’m paying for it but can’t get it.”

Which means there is one (major) news source offering its news online for "free". The same catch applies to NPR and a lot of other news organizations belonging to nation state broadcasters.

Such a solution would require a legal requirement for the public body to put up a paywall (to shield it from lawsuits etc).

Possible, yes, but would, say US legislators be willing to block their voters from accessing news?