October 11, 2012

Light at end of tunnel for papers, and more new ideas for smart paywalls

Earlier this week, I blogged about how Matthew Ingram at GigaOm appears to have a Jeff Jarvis/Clay Shirky/Jay Rosen paywall-hating burr up his ass.

Well, per Ken Doctor at Nieman Labs, that’s a good description, because Ingram, a blind follower of the Three Musketeers of Gnu Journalism (deliberately ripped off, with same snarky intent, from Gnu Atheism) details several specific ways in which he and they are wrong.

First, especially at non-daily papers, the light is not only apparently at the end of the tunnel, but profits may actually pick up next year. As a result of that, newspaper stock prices (albeit from in-the-toilet lows) are soaring.

And, yes, even some non-dailies have paywalls. The light for dailies, definitely for smaller ones, and possibly for mid-sized ones, is at least probably getting near to a flattening out point.

Second, and directly related, Doctor details the economics of paywalls. There’s a variety of ways to skin the paywall cat. Most new adopters are going with fewer freebie reads than, say, the New York Times, and also a lot less leakiness. That includes not just small companies but as big a boy as Gannett. Doctor says opt-out provisions, in which hardcopy subscribers are automatically charged at least a nominal fee for digital access, are also growing. (I hate opt-out provisions in general, including this one, but … the idea is, nonetheless, growing.)

Third, the truth is what the Three Musketeers and hangers-on won’t tell you: paywalls are growing internationally, too.

But, even there, Doctor starts with the US side of the equation:
By the end of this year, figure that about 20 percent of the U.S.’s 1,400-plus dailies will be charging for digital access. Gannett’s February announcement that it’s going paywall at all its 80 newspapers galvanized attention; when the third largest U.S. newspaper site, the Los Angeles Times, went paid (in March), more nodding was seen in publishers’ suites.
But, that’s his takeoff point to note that (as of March) more than a dozen European dailies also had paywalls.

That, then, leads to the more significant issue. Doctor notes most paywalls are neither flaming successes nor flaming failures. So, why?
So if charging for digital access — a too long phrase, but one that’s most accurate than paywall — is neither a panacea nor a tombstone on the way to the inevitable, what is it? It’s a building block, and it’s a way to re-envision the business.
And, that’s a good point. 

Isn’t that type of creative thinking and re-envisioning what the Three Musketeers laud?

Short answer? Yes, as long as it’s done for free online.

That’s because they deliberately practice a selective quoting of only one of two sentences from Stewart Brand’s famous “Information wants to be free” comment:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Note carefully that first sentence.

Then, also per Wiki, and partially reflected on its original link, there’s the question about whether Brand meant free in terms of cost, or free in terms of access.

That, then, gets back to many critics of the Three Musketeers noting that two (Jarvis and Rosen) are paid academics, and at public, taxpayer-funded universities, no less, and therefore can easily afford to tell newspapers to let people be online leeches. Until 2010, Shirky was at the public Hunter University, so ditto on him. Let’s also not forget Shirky’s consulting for Libya’s former strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and his naivete about how autocrats could use social media to their own ends when queried about that consulting.

Update, Feb. 22, 2013: Massimo Pigliucci weighs in well on this issue. 

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