November 11, 2011

Why big papers hate paywalls

First, by big papers, there's two that are really being counted here: The New York Times and the Washington Post. The Chicago Trib and the L.A. Times fall in a tier below that; next come top regional papers like the Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc.

I'm leaving out the Wall Street Journal, which already has a a paywall, of course. I'm ignoring McNewspaper, USA Today. It's a pale imitation of a real newspaper, and Gannett, even in today's times, is often a pale imitation of a real newspaper company, at the executive level.

Anyway, so, it's the NYT and the WaPost I'm talking about.

The Times does NOT have a paywall. A pseudo-paywall, defeatable by a two-bit Javascript hack created by a Canadian when the Old Gray Lady rolled out the paywall north of the border six months ago, a pseudo-paywall which is still defeatable by that hack, or, allegedly, by simply emptying your browser cache, is NOT a paywall. I don't care what lies Bill Keller or anybody else at the Times issues for public consumption, the Times doesn't have a paywall. It's even more a lie given how much fanfare the Times bloviated for us in the months before launching it.

That said, the WaPost doesn't even have a fake paywall and has no plans for one.

Now, I don't know about the Times' financials in detali, other than it having to remortgage its own office space a couple of years ago. But everybody who follows the media in detail knows the Post is hemorrhaging money like a drunken Republican president on a war-launching spree, and that only the Kaplan suite of businesses keeps the parent company alive.

So why don't either of these folks have paywalls? My proposed answer below the fold

It's about prestige.

We know that's the case with the Times. Remember when Times Select rolled out a few years back? Remember how it was a paywall for op-ed columns and other select content only? Remember who was bitching, at least off the record?

Yep, at least some of the columnists.

You see, they were afraid they'd go unread if they had to be paid for online. They were afraid they would be unlinked-to by bloggers. They were afraid they would move more to the margins of "serious discussion," or that many bloggers would feel they weren't worth $49 a year for being put into serious discussion.

That was probably a legitimate fear. Plenty of A-list liberals would have linked to Krugman, still, if they could have done a metered paywall. Liberal evangelical Christians would have followed Nick Kristof in similar circumstances. But Maureen Dowd and David Brooks would have discovered their free market value with both "centrists" and conservatives took a dive. (And Bill Kristol would certainly have discovered that in his short stint.) With the across-the-board paywall for op-eds, though, Krugman might have said, the hell with this, I teach at Princeton, too, and I have a Nobel -- see you, NYT.

On the news side, the New York Times news service, with a traditional paywall, would find itself pressed hard to prove its worth vis-a-vis free AP and Reuters reporting. Or against McClatchy's, for that matter. Ditto the Washington Post's news service.

And, now that I've mentioned the Post?

Especially if you're a liberal, can you think of one op-ed columnist there you'd pay to link to? Ditto, I think, if you're a conservative; neither Will nor Gerson seem that red meat, and on hous editorials, Hiatt seems like nothing other than a panderer.

To a lesser extent, this applies to the big regional dailies, at least if they run metered paywalls. Not only are they going to have to "prove out" their local news coverage to online leeches, they're definitely going to have to "prove out" their columnists to political bloggers.

And, in most cases, unless at the point of financial desperation, the papers are afraid to find out what will happen. Hell, look at the Post. Arguably, it IS at the point of financial desperation, and its afraid to find out how little prestige in the online commentary world it might actually have.

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