It’s baaaack. Like Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom wall with a fire axe; only in this case it’s the accountants and consultants, and they’re not breaking down walls, they’re building them. The pay wall is back, our walled garden of content. The soothing sotto vocce whispering inside our scared little skulls: “You are worth it. If they really liked you, they’d pay for it.” The frantic attempt to inflate value by manufacturing scarcity, instead of manufacturing value.
The very big boys down south - the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, Boston Globe etc etc - and dozens of mid-sized and smaller papers are hiding various portions of their re-purposed print content behind metered pay walls.
Here in Canada the Post Media chain has called in the masons too, falling prey to their own fears and the blandishments of Steve Brill and the folks from Press+ (“Connecting Content with Commerce”). As I write this, my own organization has just erected a metered pay wall around our website with the assistance of the same Press+ folks.
There are glitches, and the wall can be thwarted by anyone armed with either more than one browser or knowledge of where their cookies live, but that’s no never mind - enough of the market targeted by this metering will simply accept the cost - and that makes it worth implementing.
In the short run.
The logic - and it’s borne out by research, Brill is a smart guy - is that since there is an admittedly small segment of our market (2 per cent? 7 per cent?) willing to pay for the convenience and speed of digital delivery of, basically, our print product, we should not leave that money sitting on the table.
Those willing to pay include: real fans who see the cost as a donation to our journalism; heavy users who simply see real value in the product and will pay to continue their digital access to it; and institutional users who can afford the sub-$100 annual bill.
Visitors to our site will get a warning and a sales pitch when they hit something like 35 articles in a single month and will get booted back to a non-clickable version of the home page after their 50th monthly visit.
There is no doubt it will reduce our visitor/page view counts. But since we can’t currently monetize all of our traffic (in our case our audience is about twice as large as our advertisers want to pay for) we can take the ‘circulation’ hit without any real advertising loss. In fact, the Press+ folks say advertising revenue should rise, in part because the audience is now more valuable - ain’t scarcity wonderful?
So why do I hate these systems and the folks who buy into them, when I have nothing but admiration of the incredibly hard work I see our circulation department doing as they fight to maintain our critical print subscriber base?
Is it because the system will annoy and anger the some of the most loyal, engaged and valuable part of our digital community? Yes. But it’s more than that.
I hate it because, as I said at the top, it’s trying to manufacture value by creating scarcity - when we should be finding ways to manufacture more valuable information.
It’s because at it’s heart these metered pay walls are designed by people who regard the ‘net as simply a different delivery platform - as if overnight an immense system of pneumatic tubes had sprung into being and we’d be fools not to use them to deliver the paper.
This is very much a backwards-facing strategy - and that doesn’t sound like such a good idea in a time of systemic disruption.
But there is one small ray of light, one opportunity I see.
The Press+ system is highly granular: it can sing and dance and cook toast perfectly. You can be very, very selective about what’s free and what’s metered.
What if you simply set it to charge for ANY access to your archives - period.
But here’s the kicker - your archives include everything printed in your paper once the paper’s out, and anything more than, say, six hours old.
Everything fresh is free.
I think this simple switch would give us a chance to truly cut the cord and put digital first.
Turn your primary address into a fast flowing river of news, a river that falls off the page and into your paid archives.
Next month I’ll offer you a detailed vision for how I think this would work and why I think this would work. For now let me set the stage with two suggested readings:
Tim Porter’s brilliant 2005 call to arms:
MJ Siegler -
(Cross-posted from Shift Lock, my column on newsrooms and technology, for Newspapers Canada's The Publisher)