I went to a conference yesterday, called DPAC4 -- about digital publishing and advertising. Part of me wants to write a post just listing the names of some of the sponsors and companies that the attendees work for, because reading through the list made me feel like I live in the future, where the alphabet has extra P's, V's, X's, and Z's. It must be the same feeling middle-aged people had a few years ago when they were first learning about the Internet, and names like Google and Yahoo and Amazon and eBay. And now those names all seem perfectly normal to us. And I'm sure if I were in the digital advertising market, doing the kind of business many of these companies do, they would all be familiar to me. Okay, I cannot resist the impulse to just put them all in a paragraph and throw it out there. So, before I get to the actual thing I want to write about, here goes nothing:
(read them out loud, fast as you can, for full effect.)
Pontiflex. eXelate. Vindicia. PubMatic. LeadDog. rocketdognyc. Mindshare. Silverpop. Peer39. pulse360. Social2B. Zinio. VIVmag. Nabbr. Jumptap. Proclivity. AdMeld. Spongecell. EyeWonder. Rubicon Project. Synapse Group. DubShot Digital. Medialets. Mediaedge. ValueClick Media. mOcean. Theorem. KickApps. Kargo. Ovum. Colona. Alterian. VivaKi. Consilyum. Luxottica. Twistage. Converseon. Phreesia. ideeli. Drillteam. ClipSync. SearchLight. ePrize. Samepoint. Breakpoint. Meebo. buzzd.
With that out of the way... one of the panels had Steven Brill talking about his new venture, Journalism Online, which has signed up 1200 newspapers/magazines/other content-producing sites to start charging some readers for content that is currently free. He emphasized that it's not about putting up pay walls -- which publications have already seen that, for the most part, don't really work -- but about taking some percentage of the most avid users and finding a way to charge them some amount to use the site. And all the payment information would be processed through Journalism Online, so you set up one account and once you do that, it's easy to pay for things with a click.
He said there are a whole bunch of different payment schemes that the sites can come up with, but the example he used is perhaps there's a site that you go to most days and read an article. Maybe you would get the first 20 articles per month for free, but then you'd be asked to pay, either per article or some monthly flat rate, and around article 15 you'd get some warning box pop up telling you that you're reaching the point where you're going to have to pay. And the expectation, he said, would be that perhaps they could get 10% of the people to pay, and that this would be fair, because these aren't just casual users of the site, they're the people really relying on the site and deriving real benefit from it, the site matters to them... and you're still letting most of your readers use the site for free, and so unique visitor traffic won't really go down...
My initial reaction is that this sounds to me like either my gut understanding of how people use the Internet is wrong, or this is a terrible mistake the sites thinking about signing up for this plan. Here's how I see it: the people using your site the most, the people relying on your site, who keep coming back-- these are not just readers, these are avid fans. These are the people most rabid about your brand and your content. These are probably the people linking to your articles, e-mailing your articles to friends, spreading your brand far and wide on the Internet, doing most of your marketing work for you, getting you new readers, blogging about you, talking about you, providing real value to you. And so, of all of your readers, these are the people you want to charge? Even if I take Brill's contention that some of these people will pay, because they value the content and want to keep reading-- and I'll get to that in a moment-- some of them absolutely won't. Not even because they don't want to (although some won't), but because the kinds of people who are visiting one particular site 20 times a month are probably visiting fifty other sites 20 times a month-- especially if they're blogging or Tweeting or reading a lot of stuff online and sharing it with people-- and they can't afford to pay for all of them. And so you lose some fraction of not just your readers, but your biggest fans, your biggest brand advocates, the people spreading the word deep into the Internet. Traffic will fall, I would think, by more than just the percentage of users you ask to pay who decide not to. And those readers will never come back. Because not only will they find other stuff to read, they'll discover things that are just as interesting and that they're just as happy to spend time reading. Because reading time is finite, and the Internet is almost infinite. And told to go away, readers will go away, and some other site will take them and never give them back.
Not to make this personal, because it isn't. I don't think my thoughts about paid versus free content are personal. But, hey, I screwed up regarding the Anonymous Lawyer blog. Not on purpose, and perhaps unavoidably. But at some point post-publication, when I was working on the sitcom pilot script and trying to write other things, I stopped regularly updating and lost most of the audience. I could post every day for a year at this point and I don't think I'd get the whole audience back. You're either in someone's rotation, part of their routine, or you're not. And once you're not, it's hard to get back. That's fair. There is an unlimited amount of stuff to read, and why check back somewhere that either isn't giving you something new, or wants to charge you for something you don't want to pay for. RSS readers change that game a little bit, but most people don't use one, and they don't really change the game for newspapers and the kinds of sites Journalism Online is dealing with, as opposed to blogs.
Anyway, back to what I was saying. So you've got Newspaper X, that I love to read, and upon reading article #15 of the month (which might very well happen on the 4th day of the month, just for purposes of my example), a warning box pops up telling me I've got 5 more articles until I'm going to have to pay. What do I do? I start being very careful about what I read on this site. I start reading less, I start to see if I can make it through the month only reading 5 more articles. I start looking for alternatives. Maybe I find them. Maybe I don't. Maybe one month I pay. Maybe the next month I don't. But what am I doing? I'm rationing my content. I'm weaning myself off of it. I'm making myself less dependent on your website, so I don't have to pay. I'm not linking to your articles as much, because I'm not reading them as much. I'm becoming less of a fan.
But maybe not. Maybe I love your site. So I pay. Gladly. And I keep linking to it. And I keep sending readers over there. But, oh no, I've sent readers over there a few times, and maybe they love the site too. But they're getting that warning that they're going to have to pay soon. So they start to be careful. They stop following my links. They stop linking on their own sites. They get worried. I get worried-- I don't want to send my readers somewhere they can't read without paying. It doesn't make any sense to. I read the message boards at Baseball Think Factory. The site links to baseball articles and has comment threads beneath. They don't (often) link to pay sites. They used to link to ESPN when ESPN had something interesting. Now no one who's doing the linking bothers to read ESPN anymore, so even when there's a free article, there's no link. ESPN has left the conversation, because it started charging. Are they making lots of money charging? Maybe they are. They shouldn't be-- there's better stuff out there, for free.
Brill started out the session making what sounds, on its face, like a completely legitimate argument. Don't journalists deserve to get paid? If you want coverage of the war in Afghanistan, someone has to pay for it. It costs money. Throughout history, readers have paid for content. They will still pay for content. The content has value. People should pay.
That's all fine, and I agree that people SHOULD get paid for content. That's very different from saying that anyone is going to pay. I think it's good that we have reporters covering the war. I, personally, won't pay any money for it. It doesn't matter enough to me. And I especially won't pay if I don't absolutely have to and there aren't alternatives.
Here's the problem. Yes, people historically paid for newspapers. And, no, they didn't complain about it (too much). Brill argued that the problem is that we've trained people that content should be free, and now we have to untrain them. But that's not really the issue. The issue is that newspapers used to have a monopoly on content, you had one or two or three or four newspapers in town, and if you wanted any content at all, you had to pay someone for it. So you paid. But the Internet has taken away that monopoly/duopoly/oligopoly. If you live in Milwaukee, your choice isn't the Journal-Sentinel or nothing. Your choice is the Journal-Sentinel, or the New York Times online, or the London Times, or the Jerusalem Post, or ESPN, or some guy's blog. If the New York Times does everything better than the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (and maybe they don't-- this is just an example), then the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is screwed not because people think content should be free but because even if people didn't think content should be free, now that they have a choice about their content, they don't want yours.
Brill did acknowledge that. He said that papers like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel are slowly realizing that they shouldn't have a Washington branch, because the Washington Post is doing Washington better than they are. That they don't need to cover the local sports teams, because someone else can do it better. That they don't need a theater critic, an movie critic, whatever-- because someone else is doing it better and no one's going to pay for it. And what's left is local news, and they should do local news better than anyone else, because they can, and because maybe someone will pay for it.
But here are the two (and there are probably more than two) problems there:
1. Once you've fired everyone except for the people doing local news, you're not really left with enough to keep putting out your core product -- that is, your actual physical newspaper. Oops. You're out of business. Who's buying a physical newspaper filled with wire stories plus a local news section? Isn't that the model for stuff like AM New York, that they give away FREE for subway riders? Wire stories plus a bit of original content where you have real value to add? FREE. And people still don't read it. You've just destroyed your core business, and...
2. And so what are you then? You're an online local news provider? Didn't the Rocky Mountain News try that after they stopped printing, and didn't 600 people sign up and it failed? Is anyone paying for local news? Is local news as a category of content something anyone will pay for, even if you're the best at it? Does coverage of town meetings provide value to anyone?
And so is the plan that only three or four newspapers will end up existing in the whole country, and we'll go back to the monopoly/oligopoly system from before the Internet, where everyone charges?
Maybe in the Journalism Online world, we do-- maybe ultimately the world gets sorted into verticals, and you pay the sports site you like for your sports news, and the politics site you like for your politics news, and we do away with actual newspapers altogether and if you want a printed edition of your combined vertical news providers, you can order that up and it spits out of your printer every morning. Maybe. And maybe what the Internet ends up doing to journalism is what happened in local markets beforehand-- the best content wins, and instead of having 300 sports sections to choose from, you have 5, and they're all pretty good, and you pay for one of them. And, oh, most journalists lose their jobs and only three reporters go to presidential news conferences? Maybe, if that's all the market can bear.
Except here's the other problem. The problem isn't, as Brill was saying, that we've trained people to expect to read for free. We've also, just incidentally-- and I've never heard anyone talk about this, so if someone else has talked about this, point me over there so I can check it out-- we've also trained people to WRITE FOR FREE (or for ad revenue... which is the baseline comparison really -- Brill is merely saying newspapers can't survive on ad revenue alone, but no one's arguing the ad model can't pay some percentage of the cost of existing), and the Internet has given them an audience.
So, yes, journalists SHOULD get paid, and deserve to get paid... but the Internet has also let lots of people discover the reward of writing and finding an audience, and created a world where tons and tons of people happily create content and put it up for the world to see, without expecting to be paid for it. Sure, some would like to get paid-- and others are able to use the audience and the platform to find other ways to get paid, whether as book authors or consultants or speakers or people who sell something but use their writing to promote it or through regular jobs that they get thanks to their established expertise.... And a lot of them write for free really well. [And not even just for free-- a lot of them make some actual money from the ads on their sites, and even if that's not enough to keep a newspaper going, it's enough to keep someone on his own motivated to keep writing.] Many of the things I read online are written by people who are not working for organizations that pay them to write. And if suddenly all the newspapers decided to charge, I would probably be able to find decent substitutes for most of them, among people writing for other reasons and not asking for money. And, guess what-- if suddenly all the newspapers charge, that's probably really great for someone like Political Blogger X, who makes an okay amount of money from the ads on his page and doesn't want to charge his readers. His overhead is so much lower than a physical newspaper-- no building, no support staff, no printing costs, no expense accounts-- that maybe the advertising model actually works. And is *real* journalism actually any better than some (not all!) of what is out there under the ad-supported model? The real journalists who started out as bloggers -- or the bloggers who started out as real journalists -- would probably say it's not.
And, almost my final point: we have finite time to consume content of any sort. The Internet and digital technologies have vastly increased the amount of potential content out there. Fifteen years ago, if we didn't get the newspaper, what else could we do with our content-consuming time? We could watch TV (but only if something we wanted to watch was on), we could listen to music (but we'd have to buy it), we could read books (but we'd have to buy them), we could watch a movie (but we'd have to buy or rent it), we could play a video game (but we'd have to buy it).
Now, we can watch TV (and, because of DVR, at any given time we have a lot more appealing choices of what we could watch), we can listen to music (which we may or may not have to buy -- see, e.g., Pandora, or free.napster.com), we can read books (and now we can buy one instantly and read it right away, if we want), we can watch a movie (and maybe, thanks to Netflix, there is no marginal cost of doing so), we can play a video game... OR we can screw around on Facebook, or any of the millions of other websites that aren't looking to charge money and yet might actually be valuable to us. So even if journalism isn't free, we have more options to change our mix of consumption to include more free things than we might have had fifteen years ago. We have more similar alternatives.
Which is why I think it's going to be really difficult to get people to pay for journalism online.
One final point though-- if everything good does end up wanting to charge, and so reluctantly we end up paying, I don't know that Journalism Online has the right model down anyway. Because if everything moves vertical, and so we have one site we pay for our sports news, one for our food news, one for our health news, one for our political news... maybe there are 10 or 12 or 18 different categories of news we might pay for, and yet together it's really just going to make up what used to be combined in a print newspaper. So maybe we're willing to pay a dollar a day for that bucket of content, max. Newsday just announced they're charging $5/week for their online content. That's way too much. A site providing one vertical someone wants to read might be able to charge $1/month, perhaps? $2/month if they're really adding value? But is the New York Times going to charge people $2/month under Journalism Online? I have no idea, but I'm guessing it's going to be higher than that.
What if instead of every site charging individually, if Journalism Online was able to get everyone to sign up for its program, you just buy the bundle-- a dollar a day, and you have the universal pass to get all of your journalism. Like your cable box, like your Netflix. And if you don't pay, you don't pay, and you get nothing. You get Facebook and blogs. And the BBC. And NPR. I guess. Then they win because they're a monopoly... just like newspapers used to win, because they were a monopoly. So what I'm saying-- monopoly is the only way this will succeed. I think. Yes, that is what I am saying.