Question of the Week, February 17

This week, Max Lakin, Adam Chadwick and Vincent Valk discuss whether the recently announced New York Times pay wall is a good idea. To join the conversation leave a comment or contact Vincent Valk: vjvalk at gmail dot com.

The Paywall Cometh: An Argument for Monetizing Online Content Directly

Media’s woes — its disappeared ad pages, its eclipsing by zero- and close-to-zero-cost web properties, its general ennui and dampening self-worth — tend to add up to a terrible morass of dread from which there is little hope of climbing out. But as calmer heads have noted, publishing’s real problem is rather simple:

It’s revenue. And that there currently is none.

And as generally lucid first-year MBA candidates and your given fourth grade lemonade stand proprietor could tell you, the best way to generate revenue is to ask for it.

Charging for access to online content is not nearly a revolutionary idea. The New York Times’ TimesSelect system existed a staggering 29 months ago, at which point they apparently decided they would rather build their new multi-billion dollar addition to the New York skyline without the luxury of cash.

In those heady days, though, when publishing was neatly saddled with the coffers of marketers and money brought in was directly related to how many people that marketer was told he could reach, those visitors who could not be bothered by the awkward and clunking TimesSelect and who instead simply looked for their news elsewhere were a loss the paper was unwilling to sustain.

Now that that particular business model has been left cold and alone in some darkened corner, discussion of paywalls must be taken seriously. The basic tenet is both stark and starkly reasonable: You Read, You Pay. Details therein are certainly rife for debate, but I fail to see how the acceptance of a base payment policy has yet been adopted as every major publisher’s battle cry.

The Times doesn’t send you its Sunday edition for free. You choose to have it delivered, or to pick it up yourself, bleary-eyed, perhaps with a bagel. Yet the Times does allow you to view the same exact content, as well as archival content, as well as its more specialized, interactive, and arguably more popular feature material for the cost of typing its name into your browser (yes: nothing). Arguably, it’s this latter content that publishers should have been charging for in the first. Unlike the more standard news product, which is being churned out virtually identically by outlets everywhere, supplementary content is fashioned exclusively for and by the single outlet, and works to establish the brand and aesthetic that get consumers to return.

And in archetypal, go-to theoretical example, the Times emerged last month as the first Big Name publisher to commit to a new metered pay system, albeit one that won’t submit itself for criticism until next year. Still, the Grey Lady’s announcement is promising and level. The paper operates arguably the most defined web property in the world, and whether or not smaller and more rebel outfits will admit, what the Times does has reverberating effect on the whole of the industry.

The idea of a pay system is not akin to the Berlin Wall, casting a mellifluous shadow over democracy. It is not a nefarious threat to freedom dredged up from George Orwell’s more perverse night terrors.

What it is is a way for the people who create content to get paid for creating content. And if done right, it will keep the lights on, and eventually, keep untold journalists on their beats.

And it is precisely not doing this – willfully allowing newsrooms to erode and coverage to become thin and malnourished – that is the true threat.

Is the New York Times’ paywall, or any paywall for that matter, guaranteed to return newspapers to their foregone glory? Probably not. It is entirely possible that the cries of paid content criticsthat readers will revolt against the supreme gall of being forced to pay, simply choosing to subsist entirely on aggregated news bites and slanted regurgitations and curated “Items” – will come to pass. And then the pay walls will be taken down, and those people will come back.

Or, readers will come to realize the value of a fleshed product, identify the community it affords, and choose to contribute to that product.

Either way, it has become clear that not trying is not an option.

The center cannot hold. News is a business. We’re not slapping together the Federalist Papers in clandestine urgency anymore. We’re providing a service. Does that service necessitate physical print? No. But conflating print with traditional media and throwing the whole pail out as a broke-down relic is destructive.

–Max Lakin

Are We Asking the Right Question?

I give credit to the NYT for taking the full year to detail and test the technology involved with the pay wall. However, I do believe the TimesSelect fiasco a few years back truly left a bad impression upon the avid Times readers. I think the question shouldn’t be ‘Was the NYT’s pay wall a good idea?’ — simply because at this point, they have to. There is no other choice. The question should be, have they already turned away portions of their audience with failed previous attempts?

–Adam Chadwick

TimesSelect is a Bad Example

Adam, to answer your question: No. NYTimes.com remains hugely popular. It hit new traffic peaks in 2008, just months after TimesSelect was shut down. TimesSelect did not cause any kind of mass exodus.

While we’re at it, let’s discuss TimesSelect for a moment. Both Adam and Max reference TimesSelect as a potential cautionary tale as the paper of record again ventures into the relatively-less-charted waters of paid content. That’s true, as far as it goes, but what’s the caution?

TimesSelect, which was pulled in September 2007, is widely viewed as a failure. In spite of that, the paper had upwards of 227,000 paid online-only subscribers and made $10 million per year from them. These people were paying fifty dollars a year to read Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd.

Again: These people were paying fifty dollars a year to read Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd (OK: Krugman and Brooks, too, but I’m trying to make a point).

This, my concerned journalist friends, was the problem with TimesSelect. The Times needs to charge for its original reporting, its foreign coverage, it investigative pieces, its in-depth features. It does not need to charge for me to read Maureen Dowd imagining conversations between Barack Obama and Dick Cheney. I can invent my own conversations for free.

TimesSelect failed – and its failure was less spectacular than many would like to believe – because the paper tried to monetize what is arguably its least-valuable content, and nothing else. It’s that simple.

–Vincent Valk

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