It’s not the pay, it’s the wall

When we talk about “charging for articles” we sometimes mix up the impact of charging itself and the impact of the steps taken to make sure people pay. I was guilty of this in my “charging for articles” post.

The problem with newspapers charging for their articles on the Web isn’t that there is anything wrong with publishers seeking to obtain revenue from their Web pages. Publishers can and will find ways to make money from the Web. They just won’t be the same as they were in print, and they probably won’t be as lucrative, because print was often a monopoly in a way that the Web will never be.

The problem is that the steps publishers take to maximize revenue end up minimizing the value and utility of their Web pages. Building a “pay wall” typically means that only a paying subscriber can access the page — that’s why it’s a wall. So others can’t link directly to it, and the article is unlikely to serve as the starting point for a wider conversation beyond the now-narrowed pool of subscribers.

In other words, when you put up a pay wall around a website you are asking people to pay more for access to material that you are simultaneously devaluing by cordoning it off from the rest of the Web. This makes no sense and is never going to work to support general-interest newsgathering (though it can be a perfectly good plan for specialty niches).

If your journalism is utterly unique you might be able to make a go of this approach, though even then I think it would be tough sledding and take a long time to become self-supporting. But 98 percent of the material newspapers are likely to start charging for can’t claim that kind of uniqueness. It’s wishful to think otherwise.

(I wrote more on this last month in The OPEC Plan For Newspapers.)

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Comments

  1. How about the model of keeping the wall up for a short while and taking it down for the archives? (For example, lwn.net makes full access available after a week.)

    If it’s just for a few hours, you can link to an article with a note that non-subscribers can read it later.

  2. Solitude

    You can not copyright news. You don’t own information about things that happen in the world.

    Only your wording.

    Put up any pay wall you want and I (or anyone else) who reads your content can dissect it, add our own additional information if we want, and regurgitate it out into the web.

    If I don’t use your wording you can’t do jack about it. Simple information isn’t copyrightable.

    Pay walls aren’t going anywhere.

  3. Only specialty databases accessed by specific professionals work like that, yeah. Like technical briefs or academic journals. People like to directly support those things too, since they are often their peers in said industry. But it’s a super small audience.

    Honestly, anything else interesting behind a wall is just going to get copy-pasted almost instantly instead of being linked. If it has any mass interest at all, it’s going to get out to the masses. It’s always to your benefit that it gets out as a working link instead of as a giant block of copypasta. I remember seeing stories on livejournal all the time back in 2002-2003 that were from major company sites. Everything pasted in full.

  4. I’ve been trying to articulate a general arguement that the only viable means of securingvpayments will be those that make content easier and more valuable to buy than to steal. Devaluing content through restrictions that only serve to require payment creates various reasons why stolen content is easier, and better, to work with. “Easier to steal” is the litmus test, if it is easier to steal a product, that virtually always means the seller has not really figured out how to sell it without reducing it’s value.

    I’ve always looked at iTunes App Store as an interesting example where (in an artificial bubble of Appleness) it is easier to buy. This is the exception though, virtually every for of media I consume is easier to steal (and better in most cases as well). Music without DRM, software I can reinstall with less work, movies I can watch in my favorite player, books for my reader.

    I’m motivated to steal because the result of theft is both less work to acquire, and a better product. Currently I only steal stuff until I have time to deal with the hassle of buying it properly, and I resent the vendor for penalizing every customer all the time in their efforts to ensure payment from those whobuy now but would steal if they could (those who would not buy what they will steal simply don’t matter)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 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 …. [...]

  2. [...] Murdoch will need more than half a million people to pay that fee to cover a $30M budget (less if he can sell ads), so maybe the thing will work. I’ll bet against it, though, assuming it’s as the Guardian and Carr describe it. I’ll base my bet on the same logic that I’ve long articulated about why paywalls are a bad idea (the problem is not with the “pay” but with the “wall”). [...]

  3. [...] Murdoch will need more than half a million people to pay that fee to cover a $30M budget (less if he can sell ads), so maybe the thing will work. I’ll bet against it, though, assuming it’s as the Guardian and Carr describe it. I’ll base my bet on the same logic that I’ve long articulated about why paywalls are a bad idea (the problem is not with the “pay” but with the “wall”). [...]

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