David Simon and newspapers have pay walls backwards: Pay for today, set archives free
David Simon’s The Wire is the greatest show in the history of television. I’m leading my story with that sentence so that, in case he reads this post, it really pisses him off. And I want to piss him off because the city he documented so well and thoughtfully in that show clearly pissed him off ROYALLY, so he must do his best work when angry. And I want him to be angry about this post, because he’s wrong about how to save the newspaper business. But if he gets angry enough at me and my ideas, maybe he’ll think critically about them long enough to improve on them, and together we’ll come up with something right. So, let me just say The Dickensian Aspect of the show is truly my favorite thing about it.
Simon is curmudgeonly about the newspaper business, for good reason. He was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and watched as, in days of fat profits, his corporate bosses, with help from newsroom executives, cut budgets to the bone. They also refused to plan or even think about a future when the print/advertising symbiosis would break, ie, today. Simon has even testified to Congress that newspapers have such contempt for their own product, the news, they give it away for free on the Internet.
To him, newspaper companies are now laying in the beds they made for themselves long ago. But far from abandoning newspapers, Simon keeps trying to save them, for the very good reason that our freedom as a nation and as individuals relies on a strong, independent press.
His latest proposal in CJR, to Arthur Sulzberger and Katherine Weymouth, Build the Wall, has the publishers of the two most important newspapers in America colluding, but not colluding, to put their content behind a pay wall on September 1, 2009. Colluding, because, he reasons, they both have to do it at the same time to avoid killing the other. Not colluding, because they don’t have to meet about it, which would be an anti-trust violation. Simon says:
And when the Justice Department lawyers arrive, briefcases in hand, to ask why America’s two national newspapers did these things in concert—resulting in a sea change within newspapering as one regional newspaper after another followed suit in pursuit of fresh, lifesaving revenue—you can answer directly: We never talked. Not a word. We read some rant in the Columbia Journalism Review that made the paywall argument. Blame the messenger.
Now, I’d be surprised if the Feds did come after the two papers if they followed through with Simon’s scheme, but more for the reason that the move isn’t really monopolistic, nor collusive. That two media organizations wouldn’t be allowed to charge for their product is simply ludicrous. And the government isn’t stupid enough, on some level anyway, to be seen as attacking the already weak print media, or interfering in its ability to survive. There might be an investigation, but the end result would hardly be to break up the Washington Post or New York Times. After all, what’s there to break up?
Simon and newspapers have the whole pay wall thing completely backwards. Maybe it’s the Freemium concept in Chris Anderson’s Free that got me thinking, or this recent parade of stupid European newspaper publishers threatening to lock down their content from Google News indexing (memo from Google– they already can). But it occurs to me that charging for the entire contents of newspaper website is all wrong, in that it breaks the consumer’s expectations based on print. So, more free advice to people who don’t employ me: Your online models should mimic the way buying a print newspaper works: charge for today’s news, but make the archives free.
One of the big figures newspapers liked to brag about to advertisers was their penetration: the number of readers who read a copy of the paper after its initial purchase. They use that figure to generate audience numbers that made their ads more expensive. So, say a million people buy a paper, but on average each copy is read 2.3 times, or something like that. Cha-ching! Anyway, someone had to buy that first copy, and the other 1.3 folks are moochers, never paying a dime. So, why not target “payers,” by making that day’s newspaper stories cost money to read online? And why not “expire” that pay wall after 24 hours, so that the “moochers,” then get the story for free, the next day? After all, no one is paying for yesterday’s newspaper, why would they pay for yesterday’s archives? (Most researchers who really need to get in there are probably using tools like Nexis for which the papers are already compensated.)
The key to this strategy working is volume. Make the cost of that day’s online paper tiny, the way you once did on the newsstand: 25 cents. For 25 cents a day, or $7.50 a month, payers get that day’s news as soon as it hits the website, which is often the evening before. To help spread conversation, they also get the ability to email the story to colleagues using special URLs that keep the story on lock down for 24 hours. If the colleagues want to read it, and they don’t subscribe, they have to make a micro payment, maybe as little as .05 cents, maybe less. (Make it enough to make a day pass compelling, and tell users that, “for .20 cents more, get access to today’s entire paper!”) Maybe payers are given five “free” email links every day, with which they can unlock a story for a single, “email to friend” use. The great thing is, after 24 hours, all these paid and controlled links go away and redirect to the story’s archive permalink, which are forever FREE. And searchers and browsers after 24 hours only ever see the free version of the story, and not the pay wall.
This way newspapers reward honest users of their website but aren’t punitive towards free readers– those 1.3 moochers who for whatever reason, whether in a dentist’s office, on a subway or in the breakroom, don’t mind reading yesterday’s news or waiting a while to get around to the paper. The best part is that moochers are still monetizable readers! They were never going to pay subscription fees anyway. But that’s no reason to cut them out of the conversation completely. And what better way to monetize them than by showing them, every day what they missed the day before?
Economists might recognize a bit of game theory in here: the idea being that if everyone waits for someone else to pay for the news, no one will, until someone realizes their is a competitive advantage to doing so, and then enough people will that a natural equilibrium forms. So, newspapers will have some customers who see the benefit of paying a small amount for immediate access, some who will have to pay to keep up with the first group, and the continued masses willing to wait 24 hours to read yesterday’s news in the advertising-supported free archives. By making the day’s news cheap, the Times, Post, and many other sites will satisfy people who might subscribe to the Wall Street Journal for business but don’t see the value in the Times‘ less-financially oriented news–unless it’s very cheap and easy to access.
Most newspapers these days block readeers with a pay wall when they go to the archives, mistakenly believing that in their pasts lies a great untapped source of revenue. But the opposite is true: their asset is their immediacy, their on the ground reporting of today’s important news. By tomorrow, the news is historical record. Given today’s longevity of conversations about interesting articles and stories on the web, with comment threads that go on for hundreds of comments and many weeks, the last thing papers should do is lock the original document behind a pay wall, making it difficult for their brand to benefit from the discussions spurred by their staff’s hard work. The current scheme of free articles and mostly paid archives break the established model, which was very successful. It’s as if every newspaper was sold with a mechanism that made it burst into flames after one day. It actively inhibits the conversation the newspapers claim to want to be a part of.
As a former web developer, I know the technology exists to make something like this work, and it wouldn’t be crazily expensive. I know this involves much derided micropayments, but the important part is that they are only part of a larger system of access, not the end all be all. And micropayments, if set up for maximum ease of use, are not the worst thing in the world, and do in fact work. And I think this could work across the board for newspapers–their blogs, video, chats, etc. Newspapers have always been a volume business. By keeping things cheap and making paying as easy as popping a quarter into a metal box, papers can reclaim the eyeballs that have been deserting them.
This sounds a lot like iTunes, which I’ve derided for magazines, but the free archives aspect adjusts that model for newspapers’ particular line of business. The best part of the iTunes store is that it created a compelling alternative to stealing music. This would create a compelling alternative to abandoning sites that charge for content. And by unlocking their content after 24 hours, newspapers would remain a part of the vibrant online conversations that their earlier incarnation as completely free products, much to David Simon’s chagrin, helped create.