Five things I’ve learnt about… pay walls

February 8th, 2010 by Dave Leave a reply »

Pay walls, micropayments, premium subscriptions… whatever you want to call them, they all have one thing in common: we have no clue what works. Yet.

But we all have our own opinions on what won’t work. The anti-paywall brigade – I’m in it, I think, perhaps, possibly, slightly – will say stacking up all your content behind a big barrier is no way to gain an audience.

And others will add that ‘news’ – whatever that is – can’t be sold. It’s just information. Technically, we’ve never sold news. We’ve sold a newspapers; printed, delivered and physical. But never the actual news itself.

As Jim Tucker once told me, it was a very disheartening experience indeed to learn that his readers – he used to be the editor of a national Sunday paper in New Zealand – got more angry about a crossword being moved than they did about anything else.

Maybe people haven’t ever wanted to buy news? Depressing.

But fear not. Read around a bit on pay walls and you discover some decent initiatives. Yet, to great frustration, we’re sometimes our own worst enemies. Here’s five things I’ve learnt about pay walls – for good or for bad.

(by gyn_ti46 on Flickr)

1. Newspapers are very, very selfish

A few days ago, the Guardian’s legal affairs correspondent Afua Hirsch tweeted that Alan Rusbridger said (possibly paraphrased): “if New York Times goes behind a paywall, Guardian will be most widely read enl-lang newspaper in the world.”

Well congratulations. I don’t think anyone can match the Guardian online right now – it really is a brilliant website which manages to mix normal, hard news with niche industries. Perfect. But Mr Rusbridger is seriously mistaken if he thinks being the most widely read english language newspaper in the world will solve any of his problems.

If you can’t make 30 million visitors work, then I’d argue no amount will turn things round. If anything – it’ll get worse.

And I can’t help thinking it’s a rather selfish response from the Guardian. They’d be much wiser, surely, to just keep schtum and see if Murdoch’s plans work. If they do, it’ll be better for everyone – especially the Guardian who, with a successful pay wall, could really benefit from all those Media Guardian addicts among us.

But, alas, we’ve got to put up with pretty pathetic bitching between each side… which brings me onto my next point:

2. It’s about to get messy

Perhaps it already has. Bullshit, says Murdoch of Rusbridger’s notion that newspapers will “sleep walk into oblivion” if they adopt pay walls.

I’m no Murdoch fan – nothing personal, but his control on the world is scary, no? – but I’m starting to think we should give him a good chance with this. Maybe we’ll look back in ten years and say ‘hey… he really saved the industry’. It’s possible.

But before then it’ll be mud-slinging all round. I can almost sense the excited fingers of comment writers just itching to get stuck in News Corp when the first major pay walls go up. Presuming it’s The Times, what’s the betting that we’ll see a whole heap of bile about the quality of the ‘paid’ Times compared to the free Telegraph? Very likely.

But again, as in point two, we’d be far better off diverting our energy into working as a collective to embrace new ways of paying for news online – rather than picking into each other for some short term traffic gains.

Imagine that. “Our newspaper is out of business because we couldn’t adapt to a new business model. Damn. But hey, on the plus side, in the month we slagged off the other paper we got 800,000 extra uniques!”


3. BBC News Online doesn’t change anything

“Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.”

The words of James Murdoch, son of Rupert, and chairman of News Corp.

It’s an interesting point, and at first glance it appears he may have a point. Right now, the BBC is probably the biggest news-gathering organisations in the world. To be a correspondent is to be at the top of your game. And the website with all this stuff? It’s free.

Obviously not 100% free – there’s a licence fee and all that. But in the minds of users, it feels like a free service. No barriers, no pay walls – you just log on.

So how can anyone compete?

Easily, I say. You see, BBC News Online is all about the here and now. What’s happening today. Yes – that’s the point of a newspaper too – but in a different way, I’d argue.

Newspapers can pile on the analysis. They can doggedly chase stories in a way that is different to the BBC.

Take the expenses scandal as a good example – would the BBC have been able to report that story the same way the Telegraph did? Of course not – it would fall down at the point of paying all that cash for the information.

So my view – a biased one, admittedly – is that if newspapers think the BBC News website completely kills of the level playing field they need to just be more imaginative.

4. It’s a brilliant thing for quality journalism

‘Tits for hits’ is a phrase we jokingly use in our office. It’s true – any story with a promise of some flesh is a surefire way to get hits.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of quality journalism, does it? If all we click on is boobs, then it would be easy for news editors to just save money and make all their stories about Angelina Jolie. Seems like the Daily Mail does that anyway – take a look at their right hand nav.

With pay walls that all changes. I wouldn’t pay to read about Jordan getting married (again), but I would pay for the brilliant One in 8 Million series from the New York Times. I’d pay an awful lot, actually.

This means that, for the first time in our industry’s history, what the journalists want will be in tune with what the bean counters want.

If good journalism sells – which it will – then we’ll be needed to do more of it. Happy days.

5. The makers of Press+ are going to be very, very rich

I prattled on a few months back about how micro-payments could work if there’s a single payment method for every newspaper/news site in the world.

A Paypal for papers, if you will.

I think this is the most crucial aspect of the whole pay wall debate. If there can be one central system that powers it all, for everyone, then we’ve got a system that will succeed.

Put it this way – when you by The Times, do you have to go to a special newsagent which just sells that paper? Do you then have to cross the road to get the Telegraph? No.

Well someone’s only gone and done it. Press+ is touting itself as an out-of-the-box solution for pay walls. From PaidContent:

“Any consumer with a Press+ account should only have to enter payment info once to use the account for any publisher taking part.”

Spot on. So let’s just get on with it, eh?

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  1. I am wondering if a Napster-style service might emerge to enable the illegal sharing of paywalled content. Looking at the history of the web, it seems very likely that innovative individuals will always be one step ahead of the major corporations.

    I am hoping that paywalls won’t create a branch of elitism in journalism, where only a minority are informed, on issues that are mostly focused on their minority interests.

  2. Mo says:

    Press+ isn’t the only horse in town. Indeed, Contenture tried this and got as far as declaring it pointless and shut down.

    Who’s going to persuade all of the major publishers to get on board with a single payment system, though? The FT will want theirs and Murdoch will want his and GNM will want theirs…

    As much as it would make financial sense to support a common payment platform (or indeed as many as can reasonably be supported), I have a feeling ego may scupper this one.

    I have to say, though, Murdoch’s not the best person to be championing paywalls. While the arguments have plenty of merit in principle, the immediate reaction from most of the people I know (and indeed myself) was “well… good. reduces the chances of accidentally running into Murdoch’s content online. when does the rest of his empire get the same treatment?”. In fact, there’s only one organ I’d like to see implement a paywall quicker than Murdoch’s, and that’s the Daily Mail.

    Rusbridger may be bullish, but if anybody’s going to scupper paywalls in the UK, it’ll be GNM, with their apparent “public service newspapers” commitment, rather than the BBC.

    (Mind, I’ll happily pay for specialist coverage — subscriber to the Eye and the Economist over here).

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