Once more into the pay-wall breach: No gravedancing edition
Rick Edmonds at Poynter offers a summary of a white paper that the American Press Institute provided to attendees of the recent newspaper execs’ conclave. (The paper doesn’t seem to be available on the API site. UPDATE: Nieman JLab has it.)
The overall thrust seems to be: time to make the customer pay up. Newspapers must “establish that news content online has value by charging for it.” If this is really the level of the paper’s economic reasoning, the industry is in even worse trouble than I thought. News flash: Pricing a product does not establish its value. What you have to do is find a price that people will pay.
Similarly, the report urges a new “Consumer Centric” strategy, which sounds dandy, until you realize that “Refocus on consumers and users” does not mean “serve the customer better” but rather “refocus” on their wallets instead of those of advertisers.
Reading this made me sigh. In the contours of this latest iteration of the argument over charging for content, I’ve recognized an unfortunate pattern. Those who advocate the “charge ‘em” strategy cast themselves as hardheaded pragmatists and their opponents as wild-eyed Web idealists and anarchists.
Sadly, however, I submit that most of us in the “charging for content is a bad bet for newspapers” camp are coming at this from the perspective of bitter experience. We are grizzled veterans of this argument. We have Been There and Done That. We aren’t grave-dancing; we’re saying, “Maybe you don’t want to fall into that grave that almost swallowed us.”
During my time at Salon we tried every online revenue strategy you can imagine: Gate off some of the content. Gate off all of the content. Don’t gate any content but ask users for cash to join a premium program. Slate tried a subscription program well before us. Many others followed. Yes, there are differences between such sites and local newspapers. Yes, 2009 is different from 2000-2002. But the fundamental lesson remains: you can get some revenue from readers, and there’s nothing wrong with trying; but if in doing so you cut yourself off from the rest of the Web in any way, you are dooming yourself to irrelevance and financial decline. Don’t make your content less valuable at the instant you’re telling people it’s going to cost them more to get it.
The strongest confirmation of this fact (as I pointed out in an earlier post that was recently echoed by Silicon Alley Insider, and it’s nothing new either) comes from that poster-child for pay-wall advocates, the Wall Street Journal. The Journal has the longest-running and arguably most successful subscription program around, but it has smashed a giant hole in its pay wall and allowed anyone arriving from Google to read any article on its site. (That’s right: you don’t need a WSJ subscription. Just plug any WSJ headline into Google and walk on through the wall.)
The Journal execs can say, “Hey, we’re just being flexible, it’s a hybrid strategy,” and they’re correct, in a sense. What their strategy fails to take into account is how much traffic and mindshare they have lost from the perception that their articles aren’t a linkable part of the Web.
The Journal’s subscription model isn’t a crime or a disaster. It just isn’t the future. As the company’s own discovery that it needs to let Googlers in for free shows, this model is classic newspaper-industry short-term thinking. It’s backward-looking, and won’t help newspapers figure out where they need to be tomorrow.