Not being on the net doesn't equal not being read

 by Martin Belam, 13 July 2010

As you'd expect, there has been plenty written in the last few days about The Times paywall, including this piece Sunday in The Observer by David Mitchell, and a response blog from The Telegraph's Shane Richmond. Both articles have interesting comment threads, and I joined in over on Shane's blog, in response to this comment by scrivens:

"Since the pay wall, I've not read a single Times article. But more importantly, I've not cited a single article. And much more important than that, no-one in my social network: Twitter, blogs, etc. has cited one. Not once.

It is as if the Times has been yanked off the net and gone dark. For how much longer will journalists at the Times tolerate not being read? It can hardly be a career move to work for a company where hardly anyone reads your work. Is Matthew Parris happy that his readership has dropped off a cliff? Is Jeremy Clarkson pleased that no-one is being riled by him?"

It is an argument that keeps cropping up, but I think it is a slightly misguided one. My hunch is that if you ask Jeremy Clarkson what he cares about, the answer is likely to be how much he gets paid for Top Gear, what his next book deal looks like, and whether The Times still has more than half-a-million print readers. If you tell him that the paywall is stopping people sharing links to his stuff on Twitter and Facebook, I figure he'll probably shrug.

Or, as fellow Times columnist Caitlin Moran so delicately put it on Twitter:

"FUCK YOU I don't want to PAY FOR STUFF i want to live in FREETOPIA with my GRATIS beer and NO-FEE WHORES"
Sweary Caitlin Moran om Twitter

It doesn't seem to me that lack of Internet exposure is a problem for established columnists like Clarkson or Parris or Moran, but there is a clear parallel with the music industry. Prince only gets to do newspaper cover-mounts because of an established reputation and a hefty back catalogue. Radiohead only get to do a "pay what you want model" that works for them because they've had years of conventional success behind them.

The problem for The Times isn't how to keep Clarkson and Moran happy in a world where they can't generate Internet buzz, it is how they build and attract the next Clarkson and Moran when their best content can't go viral.


Many good points, but there is one that I do take a slight issue with:

Radiohead only get to do a "pay what you want model" that works for them because they've had years of conventional success behind them.

This article is a few months old now, but their site/label, seems to have been coming along nicely for other artists in the interim.

A very good point about the next Clarkson or Moran. Not being part of the internet buzz might be okay right now, but I too think it will do great damage in the future.
I think it is always a very delicate matter to put a price tag on an experience or even credence good like news and stories. A newspaper I can flip through before I buy, I see it next to a lot of different newspapers and most importantly I pay about 1,50 Euros and geht the whole thing.
I just don't see how standard paywalls by single (standard) newspapers will ever work online. I don't know the state of the discussion in the UK, but in Germany some are talking about a "culture flat tarif" where let's say 20 newspapers gather and you pay a fixed amount and may read them all in their entirety online and some (intelligent) revenue share system decides who gets the most of the money. But people will expect way more of it than what they got for free before (like pay-tv and free-tv, especially in Germany). Another way is to only put 'exclusive' content like local information behind a paywall. But this won't monetize a New York Times.
In the end the question I'm asking myself is: who said that the publishing business needs to be so very profitable? Maybe the time has come to lower the expectations of profits made in this industry. Still, I always shudder if people tell me the HuffPost is 'the role model for the news of the future'. We just cannot afford such a loss of professional and responsible journalism.

Caitlin Moran got a huge internet buzz for her Lady Gaga a few weeks back (pre-paywall), and she was quite proactive in helping to stoke it via Twitter - quite right too. Any attempt to do the same in the future will necessarily imply coughing up a quid or two for a peek. Journalists will become more like chuggers.

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