The path of free content
Last Wednesday, Newsday joined the paid content revolution by shutting articles behind locked doors.
A journey to the Web site finds summaries of articles that act as teasers, enticing a reader to take out the credit card and lay it all down – subscribe or miss out on the latest juicy story or gossip. But unless you’re a Newsday subscriber or customer of Cablevision, a cable and Internet provider and the paper’s parent, the full articles are off-limits.
While industry heads and analysts make the case for paywalls, there is still a sect that believes free is the path to take. “We have some paid content for specific, specialized newsletters, but we don’t think that paid content is going to be a major source of revenue,” Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes magazine, told Media. “Others may succeed in doing things called micro-pricing, but, unless the information is very specialized, it’s going to be difficult to have a model that’s just based on paid content.”
On Friday, Romenesko reported that even one of Newsday’s own had decided to cut his losses. Columnist Saul Friedman announced that under the new paywall, even he can’t access his own articles and therefore would be leaving the paper.
The New York Times is admittedly hesitant about taking the step toward an online news world ruled by the coin. Nieman Journalism Lab reported that in a recent meeting with NYT’s digital team, executive editor Bill Keller told staff that he knew they were feeling a “sense of frustration” over how long it was taking to make the decision on whether or not to switch.
Others that have argued for free content include former New York Times general manager Vivian Schiller, who is currently the CEO and president of NPR. In a recent debate on What Matters, NYU adjunct professor, writer and consultant on interactive telecommunications Clay Shirky duked it out with Steven Brill, founder of Journalism Online. “First, most content isn’t necessary. It’s optional. Traffic to the New York Times’ editorials fell precipitously during the days of their subscription service, TimesSelect,” said Shirky. “People wanted to read Paul Krugman and David Brooks, but they didn’t need to.”
Meanwhile, media economist Jack Myers points out that younger people will be less likely to pay for content. “They have fewer established media loyalties. News content moving behind a firewall will not affect them. They will simply seek it elsewhere,” he said in an e-mail interview. Like others before him, Myers pointed out that the new media business model needs to support free content, while also branding content different and valuable enough that readers would be willing to pay.
Jason Falls agrees with the sentiment. Principal of Social Media Explorer, a social media and public relations consultancy, Falls said in an e-mail interview that the same information and columns can be found in other places. “They are the answer to the outlets that produce exceptional content, which is very few of them,” he said about paywalls. “When only 25 to 30 percent of most newspaper’s content is local coverage, the majority of their content is fluff, wire copy, etcetera. Consumers are willing to pay for relevant, local content which print media is generally not providing.”
Besides frustrating readers who might not be willing to shell out, paywalls can also cause some issues for the public relations industry. “When an article runs about a client, whether proactively placed or not, I need to read it as soon as possible, will probably share it in some way, and save it. When a paywall exists, it’s just one more hurdle in getting our job done. We PR people will no doubt have more subscriptions to manage” Maggie Chamberlin Holben, owner of Absolutely Public Relations, said in an e-mail interview.
While it might be a nuisance, Holben won’t let the paywall stop her, whether she has to pay for an article or not. Meanwhile, Falls said that putting content behind walls actually makes it easier for public relations professionals to pick out influential news outlets since charging for content is usually indicative that the publication’s content is valuable, at least to some. Despite this, Falls believes news should stay free. “Because access to knowledge is not a privilege in America. It is a right.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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