A B2B Perspective on Paywalls

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.

Information Also Wants to Be Expensive

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.”

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