In a recent blog post Times Colonist, Montreal Gazette: Postmedia Paywall Purgatory? the essential premise was that media paywalls will fail not only the audience but the business. Of course it is easy to criticize when a once goto local media source, one that used to be free to access – and share – goes behind a ‘walled garden’ of a pay-per-view system, much harder to potentially describe a solution that satisfies both the business model and consumer demand.
The debate has continued, and one which should, as it affects not only the nature of media and journalism, but the nature of democracy, regulation, public relations, policy, marketing… add anything to this list. The fact is (and I’m expecting some bite back) journalism has become a hacks game. How often do we see word-for-word ‘media advisories’ from a public or commercial body become a headline article? How often do we, as media consumers, bypass legacy media in favour of those we have connected directly via social media? The trust factor has radically altered.
While our colleagues on the business side deserve credit for pushing newsrooms to become more nimble in recent years, they have also consistently failed to imagine and then incubate a Craigslist, a Groupon, a Monster. com, let alone a Google or a Facebook. Nor are they any closer today than they were last year in fixing the broken business model of quality journalism. So, while there is still room to cut costs and become more efficient, unless the revenue spigot opens up, the business model will remain broken and the decline of major news brands will only accelerate.
The response from Mathew Ingram was more telling, and added the ‘cream’
Narisetti also makes a point that I think many newspaper and magazine publishers miss, which is that media companies are trying to charge readers for what amounts to a traditional website-reading experience (or an even more crippled one, given the “walled garden” nature of many iPad apps) at the same time that new display and distribution models such as Flipboard and Zite and TweetMag are offering something much more appealing, and free.
The one issue both Mathew Ingram and Raju Narisetti fail to recognize is the internal model, and culture, of legacy media. They want to be influential. Newspapers, TV, Radio exist in a competitive editorial environment – their basic news is essentially the same, the differential is the Op/ED, letters to the Editor, comments – all which gains a greater resonance if it is widely shared. Putting the editorial section, and user comments behind a paywall is utter nonsense, it is the reason newspapers exist, maintain and gain audience. The arguments heard especially from newsprint publishers that they are simply there to serve the public with relevant timely news is largely – and excuse the term – crap. Any publisher wants influence, all newspapers see themselves as the influential voice within the their community of readers. If that was not the case, why have an editorial board at all?
Think of retaining current journalists, op/ed and editorial staff – the content providers who make a media outlet pertinent and unique. If their readership numbers decline behind a paywall, or their articles cannot be shared across a wider social media engaged audience, their input becomes less relevant. Thinking of hiring new staff? Think again – new journos might sign for lower pay rates and pensions, but they are seeking star quality, relevancy that can be transferred from one organization to the next. Put them behind a paywall and the next @Kady (CBC Politics) or @NickKristof (New York Times – beware of paywall) – may well not choose to go elsewhere.
The Answer to Media Paywalls?
As the above mentioned, and many others, have suggested – there is no ultimate answer. Both consumers and providers live in limbo. In some cases such as Canada and most European nations, there is a national tax payer funded media provider – and in the case of the .EU, subsidies for commercial media under restrictions. In the US, NPR and Voice of America act under different models and in the case of @acarvin for NPR, makes the case that the integrated, and open, model of media provision is declared, and frankly, thriving.
Overall the media business model angst seems to be from the newspapers. They alone, among the national, regional and local media providers, seem to be suffering in the open internet age of news aggregators, citizen journalists and opinion bloggers. TV and radio, while suffering some downturn in advertising revenue (arguably a restructuring factor) are not predicting their own demise. In fact the opposite, they are gaining audience and influence, and advertising revenue through creative innovation, and embracing social media.
Yet when PostMedia – Canada’s largest chain of city newspaper dailies – and the likes of the New York Times, UK Times feel they ‘have to go paywall or bust’, and it seems the newspaper model of disseminating news is in the final rattle of death, it is the likes of the Guardian UK which shines as an example of a winning media enterprise. Timely, informative, in depth, wide breadth of content and – here is the punch line – innovation – such as live blogging events. As well, unlike most media outlets which eschew a semblance of social media sharing, the Guardian places this on the front line – it enhances the brand, attracts contributors, and revenue.
For legacy newspaper media, and to some extent all media, the answer to the changing nature of audience retention and revenue gain is not paywalls. It is completely revamping the internal culture of the organization, understanding the platforms where your audience is receiving news, and creating a new culture where sales, especially, has to be innovative.
PS – interesting note. Google ‘Media Paywalls‘ and the Guardian UK comes up as the first link