An interesting post extolling the virtues of the paywall by Julien Rath as part of journalism.co.uk’s excellent TNTJ group blog has really gotten me thinking. Not because I agree – far from it – but it’s finally forced me to put into words my own views on the massive paywall debate. I don’t like them. I don’t think that most papers have ever been bought on the basis of the news content - or even the op-ed and columns. (Sometimes the columns – Bridget Jones springs to mind – but rarely, and certainly not enough to subsidise an entire paper.) Asking people to pay on the web for things they don’t necessarily value enough to pay for in print – this seems pointless to me. There’s a laundry list of ideological complaints about paywalls. They trap journalism behind a wall, cutting off access to information in a terribly anti-open-web sort of way. They create gated communities where dissent is unlikely and where the turbulent streams of the open web can’t intrude – for better or worse. They ensure a sort of private members’ club that cuts off those who can’t or don’t want to pay, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.
Ideology aside, my most basic reason for disliking paywalls is business based. We have declining circulation in print, which means very few new paper readers will come to our websites based on what we’ve put in our newspapers. One of the obvious ways to gather new readers therefore is online, getting young people used to seeing our content linked on Facebook, Twitter, social networks they belong to and appreciate, in the hope that we can drive brand loyalty through those platforms and maybe, eventually, a few of those people will start reading the paper. What happens to that model if there’s no accessible content online? It dies. What’s the plan to attract new readers to your brand above all others if it’s all behind a paywall? I haven’t yet seen one that works. It doesn’t matter how well-written or wonderful your editorials are – if no one can link to them they aren’t going to drive new traffic to your site. Breaking news content online will rarely if ever be unique outside exceptionally specialist circles. Commentary, analysis, feature articles are more “valuable”, but very rarely irreplaceable given the vast amount of alternative and specialist content available for free elsewhere. And many news consumers now read what their social circle reads and links. We come through that to like personalities or subject-specific content, but that’s not the same as a brand loyalty – I read Charlie Brooker and the Guardian Datablog regularly, but that doesn’t mean I ever read the Guardian homepage. Paying for the whole Times website when I just want Caitlin Moran doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – especially when I can’t search for Times content using my normal methods (Google) and no one else links me to it because it’s all behind a wall, so I’d have to go hunting for it specifically if I wanted to include it in my daily reading. If many other net users are like me then they won’t be willing to pay for a whole bundle when what they want is one strand. I’m more open to the idea of limited paywalls on sites like the proposed New York Times one, where only very regular readers – the folks who are already brand loyal – get charged for content. I still think they do more harm than good, because at that point you’re essentially punishing people for liking you too much. If the expectation is that content is free, suddenly charging is going to irritate people and drive them away from engaging too strongly. Yes, journalists need to be paid for what we do. We need to eat and live, after all. I’m interested in the idea of micropayment systems that let me pay pennies at a time for content from any one of hundreds of news sources – from specialist science papers via Athens through the Financial Times through the Sun, I suppose, pretty soon. I’m interested in untapped affiliation potential – ticket sales, restaurant bookings, holidays, iTunes links next to band reviews. We can still make money from picture sales, family notices and so on, but we can do it in new ways – like the death notices my paper has set up where a single payment gets you not just the notice in the paper but also a living page that remains as a permanent and changing tribute. And that’s before we get into serious targetted advertising solutions, or the content changes that have got the Mail Online to where it is today. [Edit to clarify: I'm not suggesting that any one of these is a magic bullet that will save the news industry. I'm simply pointing to possible multiple revenue streams that I feel are worth exploring to see whether they could go some way towards paying for news.] I’m not Rupert Murdoch. I haven’t sat in front of the figures or done the maths with real audience numbers, so like most other people I’m just having a good old reckon. Still, I reckon there are better ways forward than paywalls. What do you think?