NYT paywall: The reality

“I’m all for NYT making gobs ‘o moola off its content. I just don’t think pay wall will accomplish this. I think it’ll do more harm than good,” wrote the journalist and author Adam L Penenberg on Twitter yesterday. At which I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped feeling quite so treacherous about my own doubts and concerns.

Once again, critics have been boxed into taking the “either/or”, “you’re either with or against us” position so beloved by cable TV news. The reality is, of course, rather more nuanced. Of course good journalism is expensive. Much reporting is dangerous and expensive. Of course journalists deserve to be paid for their labor. That doesn’t prevent the NYT proposal from being a superficial solution that doesn’t solve the problem, which is a broken business model that doesn’t work in the digital age. When the powers-that-be finally accept that the basis of their business has dissolved, and that poorly thought-through half-measures don’t come close to forging a new path of sustainable profit, well, then things might actually get interesting. Might. Instead it seems we’re in for another round of tail-chasing.

One of the interesting pieces of fallout from AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post was the hoohah from bloggers who’d contributed for free and who now wanted a piece of the $315 million pie. Nice try. For many publications, actual writing is an afterthought. When I was an editor at BusinessWeek, all the online columnists on innovation were unpaid—and none of them were journalists. They were consultants or executives who could write off their efforts as a marketing expense. I tried very hard to ensure that their pieces weren’t obscenely self-promotional, but I can vouch for the fact that the editor/writer relationship is a lot trickier when the editor is essentially beholden to the writer’s largesse.

Now the Times is one paper that can point to its original reporting and make the case that it’s attempting not to indulge in such questionable practices. And heaven only knows we need to support smart, on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events such as, this week, Fukushima in Japan or the bombings in Libya. And sure, readers probably should be prepared to pay for this. But as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented on Twitter, “ever worry about that word “should?”.” You can’t make a business on should.

Instead, executives are floundering around with rules for Twitter, rules for links in from Google (now from all search engines) and doing a good impression of people who’ve never been online before. Journalists deserve supportive protectors. Readers deserve quality content. This all seems a little tragic.

For a crazy long but totally hilarious insight into the Times’ decisions over the years, read this wonderful post by former newspaper reporter and Search Engine Land editor-in-chief, Danny Sullivan. As he writes of the leaders of the Times, “Begin weeping for them at any time.” My concern is we’ll be weeping for us all before too long.

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2 thoughts on “NYT paywall: The reality

  1. The other day, just for kicks, I did a back-of-napkin valuation comparison between the NYT ($1.37 billion with a stock price sinking by the day) and Groupon (pre IPO estimate: $25 billion). So one Groupon, at least on fantasy paper, is worth 18 NYTs. Groupon is shoveling in money because its management understands the potential of networks. Newspapers, which arguably entered the digital fray with the best networks of all, have been so late about mining that potential, they’re struggling to stay afloat. Groupon is Craigslist, Act II.

    Which is why I find the NYT’s pay-wall so baffling. They’re trying to sell the one thing that has never sold as a commodity: fast-aging news. People paid for the packaging, not the content. Advertisers paid for the network. Now, with the pay wall, that network is endangered, while news stories have been completely commoditized. 20 free? As we all know, not all new stories are of equal value. Except now they are…

    On TrackerNews, I generally try to stay clear of paywall sites. As an exercise, I’ve been scanning the NYT for intriguing stories, then trying either to find them reported elsewhere, or go back to the source reporting. It’s really rather amazing how few stories are unique the NYT, and how many of the wow ones are based on reporting published first by others. The one thing they had that no one else could touch was their network and they’re killing it…

    Sorry for such a long rant, but it’s just so disturbing.

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