In an article earlier this week explaining why she won’t be self-publishing anytime soon, Edan Lepucki paused to enumerate the hurdles facing traditional publishers. The last in her list was “how to make people actually pay for content.” The phrase suggested to me one more challenge she might have added: “How to stop thinking of your customers as peons and thieves.”
It’s troublesome enough that media should be so concerned with how to make people pay. But the phrase implies something worse: that if people aren’t paying for content, they must be stealing it.
I have no issue with paying for content, nor do I think content should always be free. But I’d rather think of the challenge this way: how to create content so good, and a distribution mechanism so simple, that people want to pay for it.
The content market is no longer about control, but collaboration, about equal exchange. The longer traditional media thinks in terms of how they can make their customers do things, the closer they are to extinction.
Laporte: His audience will determine his salary.
In all the discussions I’ve seen of the virtues and evils of paywalls, I have yet to see any mention of the relation of paid content to social media. This is perhaps because paying for content comes off, even to its proponents, as a kind of uncool, regrettably antisocial gesture (“we don’t want to charge you, but we have to in order to survive”).
It’s not so much that money has no social role—it obviously does. But the models commonly discussed, whether subscription or micropayment, don’t quite have the give-and-take, equal-participant ethos inherent in the concept of markets as conversations. The very word paywall implies just how antisocial the concept is: “you can’t come in here unless you pay, buddy.”
It’s no surprise that most of the noise about the need for paywalls is coming from old-media behemoths like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. or Mathias Dopfner’s Axel Springer. They want to set the terms of the payments, naturally, and I don’t imagine those terms will be very favorable to the content purchaser. In this model, payment doesn’t necessarily reflect what I as consumer think the content is worth, but what the provider thinks he can get for it. Can I get a refund if the article I buy is disappointing, or a discount if the site I subscribe to goes through a spell of lame or irrelevant content? Not likely (after all, paid circ sucks).
A very different model for payment has recently been proposed by new-media pioneer Leo Laporte. Laporte is the founder of the TWiT network (not related to Twitter, as he would be the first to exclaim here), a burgeoning new-media business producing podcasts and online video.
Because asking readers to pay for content has not been the norm in the B2B world, the recent debate over paywalls for newspapers hasn’t inspired much B2B-specific comment. Today, though, a post by UK trade journalist Adam Tinworth takes an interesting look at the topic from a B2B perspective.
The occasion for Tinworth’s commentary was a column in the Guardian by journalism professor Tim Luckhurst called “Why Journalism Needs Paywalls.” With an argument like “it’s time to admit that giving away value undermines democracy,” Luckhurst makes an easy target. So what’s most interesting to me about Tinworth’s demolition job is not the case he makes against paywalls, but the limited one he indirectly makes in favor of them.
Tinworth works for Reed Business Information, which has historically built a business on both controlled-circulation trade books and subscription-based information services. His positioning of paywalls in the B2B context reflects this background:
“I’m not suggesting that paywalls don’t have a place in publishing businesses. After all, I work for a publisher that makes more than half its revenue online—and some of that is generated by paywalls. But the path to that point has taught us many things about making money online, and one of those is that just shoving traditional content online is not the way to go—especially if you’re going to stick a paywall around it. Indeed, I find it amusing that I spend half my week helping build free-to-air content around a very successful paywalled site, just as others are getting rid of free content.”
What’s important about this perspective for B2B publishers is that paywalls are not rejected, but simply properly placed along the continuum from commodity content to high-value information. As I’ve argued before on this blog, paywalls can be an important component of a trade publisher’s revenue strategy.
Given the predominantly all-or-nothing tone of the paywall debate, it’s refreshing to see a balanced view like Tinworth’s—and gratifying that it comes from a B2B journalist.
The news that Condé Nast will be deep-sixing Gourmet magazine hit me this morning with more than the merely theoretical impact I would have felt a few months ago. Then, it would have been a momentary blip in my consciousness of the consumer magazine world. Now, it will be a personal case study in why paying for content is so often a raw deal.
The story starts in June, when we received a phone call from, we thought, Seventeen magazine, pushing a renewal of our daughter’s subscription. After a brief consultation with our daughter, we agreed to renew. A few days later, she got a better renewal offer from the magazine in the mail, which we took instead. Our assumption—maybe a bit naïve—was that the publisher, Hearst, would do some deduping and give us the better rate.
Of course, that’s not what happened.
Editors are rarely comfortable using the word content to describe their line of business, given that it suggests a kind of “undifferentiated slurry,” to borrow a phrase to be discussed below. They might prefer instead to substitute the word information, but they would be well advised to resist the temptation. There is a not-so-obvious but critical distinction between the two words that is worth preserving.
This topic came up in a sidelong way on the Web over the last week or so, in a flurry of blog postings and tweets about a new essay by Paul Graham called “Post-Medium Publishing.” The number of posts and their level of enthusiasm suggests that Graham’s essay may be close to meme-level status. Jeff Jarvis, for one, thinks Graham’s piece may rank near a “seminal” essay by Clay Shirky on the “demise of news on paper.”