Saturday, December 12, 2009

Revenue for news: What if we're asking the wrong question?

Some time last week, the usual suspects were riffing on Twitter about a post called “
Where does the paywall go?” that postulates most website activity comes from a very small percentage of readers and they, consequently, must not be “paywalled off.”

Jeff Jarvis' Twitter question was phrased thusly: “Okay, so where do you put the paywall? No seriously, look at the data.” The obvious implication was that there wasn’t anywhere to put one.

I replied that I’d put it “just this side of what’s worth paying for” and was immediately dismissed by some for having missed the point.

Uh, no. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

I tried again. Where to put the paywall may be the wrong question, based on status quo assumptions. If we’re having a paywall discussion, the more fundamental question to ask is whether you've created something worth paying for.

I realized later that a lot of folks just can’t envision a news product that’s worth paying for. While pundits nod toward 
The EconomistWSJ and a few speciality sites, their overwhelming consensus is that readers don’t and perhaps can’t find direct, transactional value in news. If you assume internet advertising is the primary way to pay for creating content, then you havede facto assumed that maximum traffic and/or clicks is essential.

This general question surfaced a bit later when Jay Rosen tweeted “
The Big Portals’ Battle For Local: I don't think any of them--AOL, MSN, Yahoo--have cracked the code.”

I replied,  “What if there's no code to crack? If grail is ad-supported local accountability journalism, I'm beginning to doubt it.”

That drew no replies.


  1. It was Rosen, not Jarvis was said, "“Okay, so where do you put the paywall? No seriously, look at the data..."

    And you are incorrect about the implication. It meant only: there is no obvious place. There may yet be a place, it's just not obvious. I'm not against pay schemes as a matter of religion. Nor do I think they are the obvious solution.

    As for no one replied, that is also incorrect. I did, agreeing with you.


  2. Damn, Jay, you are an infinitely better Twitter manager than I. Thanks for helping straighten that out.

  3. Howard -

    Thanks for the link.

    I am actually not opposed to charging for online, just pessimistic about most of the current conceptions of paywalls. Not because journalism has no value but because most newspaper Websites are pretty thin gruel compared to the value that is contained in the average print paper.

    Print includes News, sports, sports agate, business, stocks, comics, crossword, Dear Abby, classifieds, display ads, coupons, obits, weddings, calendars and etc. almost ad infinitum.

    How many of those categories are offered equally well by most newspaper Web sites? We have lost many of those niches to ESPN, Monster, Craigslist, eBay and others. And, what new digital native features have we created to replace them?

    In the chart you reference - I think there is plenty of opportunity to put up a paywall, but first we need to create some value above where the 'loyal' readers now live. Crimemaps, personalized alerts, local coupon and discount sites, high school sports stats, real estate listings and tracking.

    Call it one hundred new local features to replace the hundred syndicated/commoditized features we have lost online. Get those new tools on your site and then start converting your loyals to premium subscribers. Then work your way down the readership groups moving each visitor up the value chain a step at a time.

    Damon Kiesow

  4. As the esteemed Dr. Weaver points out, the first thing is to create something that people are willing to pay for. Then the pay wall takes care of itself. Print newspapers have little perceived value to most consumers. Otherwise they would be willing to pay more for them than is currently charged. But readers balk at price increases for the usual print product. The answer is to deliver something that readers perceive as valuable -- essential to their lives. That may be information -- not necessarily "news" -- about entertainment, science, politics, business or whatever. The reader must think it is worth paying for -- NOT the editor or reporter.

  5. For the record, that wasn't my question; I retweeted someone.

  6. Maybe my perspective has warped my opinion, but I laughed when I read "where to put the pay wall." Not only is it the wrong question, it represents so much old-school thinking that I struggle for words.

    To expand on Jensen: What if one were to lean instead into questions such as...

    -- How do we build authentic two-way relationships with our reader/contributors? Something far more meaningful than comments sections and "vote for best of" buttons?

    -- How do we build relationships so strong that many of our reader/contributors will be willing to voluntarily pay to continue the relationship?

    -- What does "exclusive" mean on the Internet? How do we build a unique and valued information product that can not be easily recreated (and/or cheaply mimicked) by any would-be competitor?

    -- What is original reporting in an environment where the press hand-out goes around news organizations and flows directly to the consumer via Facebook, Twitter, et al? Could we stop covering so-called "media events" completely, and focuse exclusively on providing what can not already be found online?

    Much more to say, but I suspect you get my drift.

  7. Anonymous2:29 PM

    The big obstacle I see to charging for content is not that our stuff isn't worth paying for.
    It clearly is. We sell it in printed form every day.
    The major problem is the nature of the online audience itself.
    Our online folks tell me that at least 80 percent of our readers are office workers accessing our content from computers at work.
    I think most employers will overlook a little extracurricular surfing by the employees during downtime.
    But I think the workers would be pretty reluctant to start climbing paywalls and increasing the risk of getting noticed by the boss and written up for misuse of company time and equipment.