Online Journalism

If anyone else talks about paywalls I’m going to punch them

No industry can be as self important as the newspaper business. OK, maybe TV. And, I suppose, if politics is a business (which it all to frequently appears to be) then that deserves a mention, too. But journalism – a trade designed to make a mountain out of a molehill – has a habit of getting itself in the headlines, often to its detriment. Evidence for this claim is hardly difficult to find. From the well-paid columnists who tell us about their not-very-interesting lives, to the current debate about the New York Times’s decision to charge customers for using its website from January 2011.
This news has been greeted in some quarters as common sense, and in others with nothing short of derision. In particular, online gurus have lined up to have a pop at the venerable ‘Gray Lady’ of American news. In fact, it has been a little like watching the judges of American Idol, with the New York Times cast as the feckless wannabe and Jeff Jarvis as Simon Cowell.
Now, if the words of one New York Times exec is to be believed (thanks to Jay Rosen), it seems the paywall is a paywall only if you are actually going to sit down and read the online product properly (who does that?). Those who arrive through the millions of links that in turn benefit the Times’s standing on the web will arrive free – no doubt thanked for their valued Google juice. Since subscribers, who might by one estimation account for 70 per cent of the small number who will stay long enough to pay, would be handed access gratis, it suddenly seems like less of a paywall. This might be the greatest double bluff in online newspaper history (or is that the only double bluff in online newspaper history): the NY Times had been paid-for, then it was free and now it is going to be paid-for, but also free. Anyone who could get their head round this would no doubt be given a subscription forthwith and asked to join the board.
There is, of course, a little more method to the NY Times’s madness than might immediately meet the eye. Firstly, the vast majority of clicks on the site will be from people who won’t under any circumstances pay. They will visit – through Google or through links from other sites – but their time perusing the NYT’s content will be brief at best. These are the folk who Murdoch hates, because they pore sweaty-browed over his finely rendered, beautifully polished and expensive prose, but provide nothing (either by directly paying or as customers to whom he can advertise). Because they won’t stick around, particularly if they’re asked to cough up (imagine Rupert as red-faced shopkeeper chasing them out of the store after they’ve thumbed through his comics), there’s no point trying to make ’em. Frankly, this is the hardest lesson for newspapers: lots of people just won’t pay. All they offer is the promise of links, something Jarvis has pointed out offers a different form of value. But some, you see, will. It will be a tiny number, probably, and mostly made up of people who have an affection for the product, who stick with it and believe in it. But, for the NY Times, that number doesn’t have to be that big. And, what’s more, you can advertise to them. Maybe you can even advertise much more directly to them (if you know their tastes, their habits, their interests). So, with these, er, win-win benefits, it’s presumably considered to be worth a shot. Whether it works is another matter and, frankly, I don’t care.
That’s because all this talk of paywalls is something of a red herring. Newspapers feel they need to charge for online content because it appears to cost them so much. After all, the readers are deserting the paper product for their free online offering, just as the advertisers are. But what are a newspaper’s costs? Principally, as it happens, the production and distribution of newspapers. And is anyone talking about this at the moment? While we all blow hot and cold on paywalls, newspapers seem to have a far bigger problem to deal with: the newspaper itself. When I say the newspaper I don’t just mean the paper, the print and its distribution – although this is an expensive business in itself. I mean the advertising sales teams, the support staff, the big offices, the related human resources costs, the insurance, and everything else that has been sucked into the business of making and distributing news. What will happen to all this when, as will I think inevitably happen, it simply is too costly to bear?
It’s a much more important argument and goes to the heart of news production, its merits and its values. Paywalls don’t – and that’s why I’m so fed up with all this pointless hot air. Some will work and some won’t, it’ll depend on whether you’ve got something people can’t get elsewhere – i.e. it’s common sense – and that’s really all there is to it.

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