Don't put Johnston Press on trial over their paywall experiment
It is fashionable this week to write a blog post knocking Johnston Press for introducing paywalls on three of their local sites. I'm not going to do that, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the whole debate about the future funding of journalism contains a lot of assumptions and second-guessing. We assume paywalls won't work. We assume search engines, and Google in particular, will remain the dominant way-finding device of the Internet. Companies assert that in the future they might wall their content in, or sue aggregators, or try to overturn existing copyright case law.
Some of these assumptions may be right.
However, unlike anyone else in the industry, at the end of the three months Johnston Press will actually have real figures. They'll know that for a town with a population of x and with a print circulation of y, they can expect to sell z number of subscriptions through their current website.
Now z may turn out to be a lot less than they were expecting - and the user experience of buying one isn't going to help shift any - but coupling those numbers with an understanding of how much advertising they sold online and offline in the trial areas should allow them to plan for 2010/11 on the basis of some evidence, rather than just on a hunch.
There is a second reason I am not interested in knocking Johnston Press, and that is due to Internet testing culture.
For a long time net-heads like myself have criticised mainstream media outlets for not innovating, not being agile, not experimenting enough and being far too scared of failure on the web.
At the minute, Johnston Press have some sites giving away free ad-supported content, some sites have content snippets urging users to buy the paper, and some sites are charging a subscription for access. Essentially they are doing an A/B/C test of their entire business model online for three months. As someone who advocates user-testing at every stage of product development, how can I argue with that?
As I say, personally I'm unconvinced you can successfully put this type of content behind a paywall, but I'm not going to knock Johnston Press for giving it a trial.