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Pay per view

There are journalists who make money, but not many and not often. Newspaper owners, however, have traditionally been in better shape, as the cynical, experienced reporter Richard Wagner observes in Tom Stoppard's 1978 play Night and Day, "We're working to keep richer men than us richer than us." (He is, of course, countered later in the play by the photographer George Guthrie, who marks his final exit with, "Information, in itself, about anything, is light.")

But we live in strange and disturbing times, and the question of how to stay richer than journalists has been exercising a lot of newspaper owners lately. With advertising revenues dropping, circulation dropping, classifieds vanishing online, and online readership proving less profitable, clearly something has to give. In October, the Evening Standard began giving away its print run, right around the same time that Rupert Murdoch announced he would begin charging online readers.

Well, today's the day: as of this morning The Times is behind a paywall. You can read the front page, but click on a story and you're asked to pay £1 for 24-hour access or pay £1 for a 30-day trial after which you pay £2 a week. The paper's articles have already been blocked from appearing on Google News for more than a month. The joint effect, as Search Engine Watch memorably says, is that Rupert Murdoch has turned The Times into a newsletter.

Based on the figures SEW cites from Hitwise and if the trend continues, that's about right.

Although paywalls - or, in Variety's case, a velvet rope - are the fashionable must-have for newspapers in 2010 that portals were to ISPs in 1995, they're not a new concept. People have been trying paywalls for years; they've been going up and down as often as the proverbial whore's knickers.

I think the first was either Slate (dropped after a year or few) or the New York Times, more than 15 years ago. The latter's paywall had a twist: the site was free to US residents but international readers had to pay - the justification was that advertisers weren't interested in paying to reach non-US readers. It came down with the rise of the search engines; a few years ago the paper tried charging for its star colunnists' output (thereby marginalizing them), and now plans a new paywall structure for next year, although people arriving at stories by following links from other sites will still have free access. Nieman Labs has an interesting game to let you try the effect on revenues of varying subscriber levels.

Long before Murdoch's acquisition, the Wall Street Journal was also an early paywall adopter - with some, unusual, success, although as time has gone on more and more of the paper has been freely accessible online.

Murdoch is likely to be about to discover that his newspapers are not exempt from what many other newspapers and weeklies have already found out: the subscriber numbers are, in general, awful to terrible.

The key contrast here is with the Guardian, which is willing - and able because of its ownership by a trust - to measure its success in influence as well as money. Editor Alan Rusbridger, outlined in January the extent to which the Internet has made the paper a global voice.

The answer to the question of what people will pay for seems to me straightforward: people will pay, even online, for publications that save them time, save them money, or provide information they have to have that they can't easily get elsewhere. People will not, particularly in this economic climate with so many other things clamoring for their limited financial resources, pay for things that are easily replaced with free content. It's unsurprising that the business and financial papers have had the longest and most successful paywall runs: their constituency had to read them (and could expense or tax-deduct them), and it took their subscribers a long time to recognize how much of their information had become directly available. In the 1980s, subscribing to Standard & Poor's quarterly reports on ten companies cost something like $250 a year; today, you can get more detailed information than that service provided daily for free.

In the US, what's happened to newspapers seems to me a direct consequence of chain ownership and Clear Channel thinking: dropping local news and commentary in favor of national wire service stories seems doomed to make your paper interchangeable with Google News. In the UK, the situation seems more simply one of changing business models, and in my view Rusbridger's entangle-yourself-in-the-Net approach is the preferable one, certainly so if you see journalism as a more than just a product.

But as much as I hate paywalls - and I think if they become widespread they will pose a serious problem for the economic viability of freelance writing - I have to hope that they succeed at least partially. Because if they don't, then the only sources of income for journalism will be advertising, sponsorship, and patronage (in which I'm including bloggers whose day jobs support their blogging habit). To get a full range of voices and stories you need a balance of financial and commercial pressures. And advertising support can be even more fragile than fickle consumers who abandon their newspapers for quick scans of Google News and their RSS feeds.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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