Two views on paywalls

The most intuitive way to structure a paywall with respect to premium content — like, say, a longform reported magazine piece or a Snowfall-style multimedia feature — is to offer the cheaper content for free and put the premium stuff behind the gate. I say intuitive simply because it costs you more to produce that stuff; it makes sense, to the extent you’ve decided to charge at all, that you don’t give it away.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the argument for a simpler metered approach where all content counts equally, that came to mind thanks to this quote from Nate Silver (who wasn’t talking at all about paywalls). Here he is via Nieman Lab:

On balancing features and blogging-style analysis

We see them as two related, familial, but separate content silos. From a practical economic standpoint, one of the wonderful things about blogs, as they were originally invented, was you had relatively low transaction cost for producing a blog post. Not that it doesn’t have to be high quality — but you’re not necessarily spending as much of an editor’s time on it, you’re not going through multiple iterations. It’s more thinking about things in real time.
So in some ways, we want to, on our blog, get back more to what we think are the core differentiating values of blogging, and not this kind of in-between space a lot of news organizations have wound up in where everything became called a blog, and then it became unfashionable, so nothing gets called a blog.We do make a distinction based mostly on how quickly the content is turned out. What we call a feature is something where it’s assigned, generally in advance, and goes through at least one, maybe multiple rounds of edits.A blog is something which still has to be very good — and it’s as hard, relatively, to hire bloggers as it is to hire feature writers. It’s something that might get a quick read, and maybe has a little bit more voice, but also saying “this is my thinking in real time,” or my work in progress. How we’ll flesh that out exactly in practice, I’m not sure, but I feel like there is an important distinction to be made between the two.

This got me thinking about the awesomeness of truly good blogging, the way it makes you want to check in every 10 minutes to see if the author has something new to say. It’s why I still want to read everything Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, or Tyler Cowen writes.

Now here’s Silver on balancing between loyal readers and broader traffic:

I think with almost any web product you have two types of audience. You have your core, everyday readers and then you have the people you reach out to from time to time. I think that having the right content mix, where you can have big spikes in content by doing something interesting and different from time to time, but also making sure that people who are reading the site every day feel they’re getting a good healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday, full of FiveThirtyEight content.

All of which made me suddenly reconsider my intuition on paywalls and premium content. I hear Silver making the case for a metered model that treats everything equally. The high quality stuff can “travel” on social, reaching readers who otherwise wouldn’t stop by, and because they haven’t used up their content quota, they can view it for free. It’s essentially a loss leader that attempts to draw in more regular readers. And what those devotees are paying for isn’t high production value or in depth reporting so much as immediacy and consistency. They want to read all (or lots of) what you put out.

We see both models today: The New York Times and The Washington Post are metered; The New Yorker makes it harder to get to its premium magazine content than to its blogs. But when I think about my own willingness to pay (or lack thereof) the metered approach strikes me as a bit more plausible, because it pulls out all the stops to build an affinity to the brand. Put another way, you’re making it extra difficult to gain paying customers when you put your best products out of reach.


How to sell your journalism

I’m not a fan of paywalls and have written against the Times’ in particular, but this ad is fairly moving. It captures quickly and simply both in image and text why you should read The New York Times. Because there are unbelievably important things happening in the world, and because you need to expand your consciousness to include them. Well done.


Was I wrong about the NYT paywall?

In a nutshell: not yet.

I wrote a post for The Atlantic back in March when the paywall first launched that called it “unsustainable.” And yet, as Felix Salmon has detailed here and here, the paper is on track to hit its goal of 300,000 digital subscribers. Was I wrong? I don’t think so; at least not yet.

A bit more from about NYT’s success, from NYMag:

It will take years for the ultimate wisdom of the Times’ strategy to be apparent, but the company’s second-quarter-earnings report proves that its digital-subscription plan has thus far been an enormous success. The internal projections have been closely held, but several people have confirmed that the goal was to amass 300,000 online subscribers within a year of launch. On Thursday, the company announced that after just four months, 224,000 users were paying for access to the paper’s website.

As Felix notes, that revenue is a drop in the bucket, but still promising. So here’s what I wrote when the paywall launched:

I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYT can raise some revenue from this in the short term from people young enough to have canceled their paper subscription but not so young to be heavily into social media, at least as a means of getting news. (Age isn’t the only relevant factor here, but it’s one.) But that already limited demographic will shrink over time. Put another way: the number of users interested in NYT content but not already reliant on social media — or even just capable of using it — to access news is shrinking and will continue to do so.

In other words, NYT was leaving some money on the table and they decided to pick it up. But I’m skeptical that they can grow digital subscriptions over time. Eventually, I’d expect the pool of digital subscribers to shrink. But Felix has some good pushback on that kind of logic:

Sales people and business-side executives tend to believe as a matter of faith that if people can get something for free, they won’t pay for it. But all they need to do is look at their own behavior to see how that isn’t true: when they go to a restaurant in a distant town that they’ll never visit again, they still leave a 20% tip. A large segment of the population feels that it’s only proper to pay for something if you’re getting value from it…

I had a couple brief online conversations after I posted a quick screed against record companies that suggested paying for music may not be necessary, and based on those conversations Felix is, at minimum, partially right. At least when people are used to paying for something, they feel obligated to keep paying for it. Multiple people spoke to me about how important it was to pay for music in order to support the artist, etc.

But is this true in some absolute sense? That it’s getting value that prompts people to pay? More likely it’s being accustomed to paying for something that gives you value. Which is to say I expect that a generation that grew up never paying for information won’t feel compelled to pay for news.


The NYT’s Unsustainable Paywall

The New York Times has finally released the details of their paywall, and they confirm that the model is not sustainable. I have a short post up at The Atlantic Tech saying as much. Here’s the basic point:

Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.This is tantamount to saying that if you’re a power-user, or even just someone heavily immersed in social media and the blogosphere, then the paywall won’t apply to you. Which is basically admitting that a paywall isn’t sustainable.

Go read the full post. And then go read 20 or more additional articles, since The Atlantic thankfully has no paywall!


Paying ProPublica to read The New York Times

2011 is the year The New York Times will finally erect its much discussed paywall.  The Times will charge “less than $20 a month” for full access to its site; non-paying users will have access to an unspecified number of articles outside the paywall.ProPublica

As a heavy reader of the Times – exclusively online – I am not looking forward to this.  I don’t plan, as of now, to purchase an online subscription, for reasons I’ve laid out before:

1) As much as I like the Times, I don’t need it. And I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.

2) If I am going to pay money to support good journalism, I want to know that my money is going directly to that cause.

Which brings me to an idea:

The Times should offer free online subscriptions to anyone who donates a certain amount to ProPublica.

I’d get to keep reading the Times while directly supporting quality investigative journalism.  Not only is ProPublica exclusively focused on investigative journalism with “moral force”, it’s also a nonprofit so it fits well with my preference for charitable support over payment.

You might wonder why the Times would consider giving away subscriptions in exchange for donating to another organization.  It might seem odd, but I can think of a few reasons why they might consider it:

1) To retain power users they might otherwise lose with the paywall. I’m not going to pay for the Times, for reasons I’ve laid out.  Either they lose me as a heavy reader or they find some way to let me keep reading without paying them.  Of course, the Times could care less about me, but I’d hazard a guess that the kind of user who is firmly anti-paywall and pro-ProPublica tends to be more engaged and influential than the median user.  This demo isn’t very big, but I’d imagine it’s still valuable.  It’s full of web-savvy power users who consistently share content through their networks.  There is value in keeping these users, especially in light of (2).

2) It doesn’t cost the Times anything. Offering a few hundred free subscriptions costs the Times nothing, if you assume your target group wouldn’t purchase an online subscription anyway.  (I’m imagining that this isn’t marketed but just exists as a loophole for future-of-news geeks who otherwise wouldn’t pay.)

3) To curry favor with the anti-paywall crowd. Whether or not the Times cares much about the demographic I made up for (1) to describe people like me, they certainly care about their perception in the industry.  And with the paywall going up, they risk being dismissed by new media gurus who see their move as ill-advised or backward.  Why not demonstrate a commitment to experimenting with all sorts of new journalistic models?  Sure, we’re trying a paywall, they’d say, but we’re also supporting ProPublica’s experiment by helping them attract donations.

4) To help a partner. The Times has partnered with ProPublica on numerous stories; ProPublica and NYT Magazine even shared a Pulitzer Prize.  So the Times benefits, if indirectly, from increased revenue for ProPublica.

I’m imagining the donation mark for a Times subscription would be roughly in line with what the Times might charge for that subscription.  So perhaps the ballpark of $200/yr?

So there’s the idea.  What say you, New York Times?