Monday, November 05, 2012

Beyond The Paywall

This is my second week going cold turkey on the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National newspaper. I admit I was never a devout follower of the “Grey Lady of Front Street” as she was once called, since the Globe was frequently “shocked and appalled” by things that didn’t upset me in the least.

The paper also featured a regularly disappearing and then appearing revamped before disappearing again sports section suggesting a complete lack of interest in issues which interested me deeply.

But it was generally available on the seat next to me on the bus or in the coffee shop. And based on what I found on those occasions, I paid for it from time to time.

And then it was online and it was free and the ink didn’t come off on my hands, so I dropped by the website with increasing regularity.

Recently, however, like a lot of struggling newspapers, the Globe put up a paywall, insisting I pay for its stories, whether I found anything of interest or not and even if the content might be plagiarized or printed to serve little more than the personal needs of some Globe employee.

So now I’m getting my news elsewhere and, far from surprising, have found more than enough information on virtually any story that has caught my attention –- for free.

Somebody who has given more thought than I about Newspaper paywalls is Anthony Marco, who most who visit this site know as the co-host of the inimitable “TV-Eh?” podcast as well as my fave Canadian podcast “Dyscultured”.

These and Mr. Marco’s other online activities are aggregated here.

Anthony is also a teacher from Hamilton, Ontario, heavily involved in Labor issues and has run as an NDP candidate. So he comes to the issue of access to information both honestly and with greater depth than I’ll ever have.

He’s also agreed to share his views here. They’re well worth the read. Have at ‘em Anth!

News Site Paywalls:The Decade Old Box of Baking Soda in the Back Corner of Your Fridge

I've been wrestling with the idea of paywalls on news websites over the last few weeks. That's not to say they haven't been around longer than that, but the practise seems to have ramped up in Ontario and Canada as the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail announced their most recent forays.

As I'm working through my feelings on podcasts and during impromptu discussions, I find that I never quite capture everything I want to say.

First of all, I do believe that the people who work for publications should get paid, and get paid well. That's the social democrat in me.

I get the sense that traditional print publications don't get the first thing about how to monetize on the web. They make some piddling amount on web ads, but their business is still floated by print advertising to a huge degree over subscriptions.

I've always been against any restriction of my travels on the web, but somehow I've had an instinctive problem with it on news sites. I believe, after much consideration, I've drilled down to my major objection:

The product by which these giant media conglomerates are making money is one of the few protected businesses in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the U.S. Constitution. The reason we protect such an enterprise is because the public have a right to know the affairs of government through an independent body that does not work for that government.

If such a paradigm is so important that we have enshrined it into the living documents that create a road map for our countries and cultures, why are we allowing roadblocks to be thrown up in front of this information? If freedom of the press is a right then surely access to the content the press produces should be essential to an informed and literate society.

When I buy a newspaper (not regularly), I've always assumed that I'm buying the delivery system of the content, not the content itself. I'm clearly not buying the content or I would have a transferable right to use the content without citation. If I choose a tree-based product as my choice delivery system of content, I should expect that the cost of paper, ink and delivery is a necessary evil.

I have no doubt that maintaining a newspaper's website is a time-consuming enterprise that has costs attached, but if it is a loss leader in the "news" enterprise, why have a website? If the answer is "That's because our readers want to read our content there," then surely they will pay. So why aren't they?

Perhaps it's because a huge percentage of people who read news on a website cherry-pick stories and don't see read the news like a retiree who devours each page over a three hour period every morning. If I only read a story or two each day from the Toronto Star, I would never buy the print edition based on a such a practise. Why would I pay for a full-blown web subscription?

When newspapers try to translate to the web, they are trying to shove a widely general-themed product into a readily niche-utilized environment. Who wants to read a web edition, in its entirety, the way one might read a print edition?

I can't justify the value model of paying for a single newspaper's web portal when I get my news from all over the web.

In trying to sum up my basic problems of paywalled news sites:

1) You're making money from constitutional protections that don't extend to average citizens. You are holders of a public trust and, as such, your fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder profits by blocking the most democratic form of access we've had to information is highly problematic.

2) The most impoverished of our citizenry, who could, until now, try to maintain a grasp of current events by having access to a web where most content was accessible. How can those who cannot afford a print edition subscription afford a digital subscription when the alternative may be rent, heat or food?

3) You've never tried a "pay what you can" strategy or a system for micropayments. If I read one article on your website and find it informative, I might pay a nickle or a dime for it even though I wouldn't pay ten bucks a month on the chance I may find nothing. By asking readers "how much is this worth to you?" you may find you're surprised. But that's not a model that acceptable to the corporate overseers.

4) I love the concept of supporting local businesses. Local newspapers have been subsumed by national publisher silos. In Hamilton, the daily, The Spectator, is owned by the Toronto Star's parent company Metroland. The weekly hyper-local papers are also owned by Metroland. The Spec has more stories aggregated through wire services than local stories on a daily basis. I can find endless sources which will allow me to read wire stories for free. It used to be that a local paper's success often ran parallel to a city's successes. Now the dollars are fed into the silo and the viewpoints have become homogenized by corporate interests.

I can't give news sites the right answer, but I can spot a wrong one: paywalls.

Neither the work, the employees or the content have become irrelevant. The monetization model is, however, more questionable than the ten year old box of baking soda in the back corner of your fridge. It's well past it's "best before" date and so is the idea that your masthead will carry the day on a user-defined information medium.

Mr. Marco’s piece is published under a (cc) Creative Commons license.


Anonymous said...

18I am still trying to reconcile the idea of people who can afford an iPad, a laptop or a desktop with internet connections and fees NOT being able to afford the print edition of the Globe and Mail or the Star. Heck, if they go to a library for their internet access they also have free newspapers on the wooden sticks.

Such an invalid argument!

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Anonymous #1. As the government keeps telling us every time they raise taxes "its only a latte a month". Priorities, I guess. that, and a cheapskate entitlement that 20 years of free stuff (mostly stolen) on the interwebs.

I know I won't be paying, only because I don't need to read another story on the US election or a hurricane. I'll pay for local, but as Jim says, so much news is now nothing but re-written press releases (which are free to read anyway).

Clint Johnson said...

I haven't been able to follow their reasoning from the outset.

The monetization strategy of these media outlets has been to put advertisements in from of eyeballs. Their product is ad viewers and the content is there to filter for demographics. The more people you can get to view the advertisement and the more desirable their demographics are to the advertiser, the more you can charge for the ad space.

The cost of printing and distribution has been one of the biggest expenses in doing this. Along comes the Internet that removes this expense and they panic?

Technology waved a magic wand and eliminated the cost of printing and distribution... why the hell aren't they celebrating?

One problem may be that advertisers are seeing that the same advertisement on the Internet, where they can more accurately track its efficacy, does not have as good a ROI as they are told the print, radio and TV ads have. I would say that the ROI on traditional media advertising has been exaggerated from the beginning.

Another problem is media fragmentation. The entertainment and the news has a lot more competition out there and it isn't easy to get millions of people to click on your website. But if you think it is hard to get them to click a link in their browser, charging them for it is not going to be an incentive.

Create content that draws more people to your website, make sure it is free to view so you get maximum eyeballs... then revel in the fact that you no longer have to spend such a huge part of your budget on paper, ink and delivery.