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Monday, February 25, 2013

Newspaper Paywalls Won't Forever Keep the Barbarians at the Gate

Posted by on Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 2:07 PM

I've no idea if the Seattle Times' decision to hide behind a paywall will grow or shrink their revenues in the long run. I assume they've studied the numbers, so if this is an act of desperation, it's at least a calculated one.

But I do know that a paywall will almost immediately shrink the newspaper's relevance. That is inevitable.

With the paywall in place, fewer people will read the Seattle Times. Oh, the number of paid subscriptions will bump up at first, but there will be fewer actual readers. And not only will the paper's audience be smaller, it will be more homogenous: Older, wealthier, older. With each successive generation, fewer young people are getting into the habit of reading daily newspapers, especially in print. That's why the Seattle Times is charging more for a digital only subscription ($3.99/week) than it is for Sunday-only delivery ($3.15/week), a subscription that includes digital access for free.

That's right: The Seattle Times will charge digital subscribers an additional $43.68 a year for the privilege of not having a newspaper dumped off on your doorstep. That's a business model the phonebook companies might want to look into.

And in addition to suppressing direct readership, depending on the porosity of the paywall it will also serve to exclude the paper's reporting and opinion from much of the larger conversation that occurs outside its gated community. Why should I Tweet a Seattle Times headline if the bulk of my followers can't load the page from the embedded link? Why link to the paper's website at all, except for entirely exclusive content? Judging from my comment threads, it's clear that many readers already neglect to click through the links provided—the last thing they need is further disincentive.

Publishers may see paywalls as an effective means of seizing back control from news aggregators, but paywalls only empower news curators like me. As a blogger, I built an audience that trusted me to read the papers, pick out a handful of the most important stories, block quote the key passages, and tie it all together in some sort of meaningful and entertaining context. Erect artificial barriers to reading my source material, and fewer people will. That only enhances my ability to frame the message.

As Dom says, the Seattle Times is not the New York Times. It's not nearly as essential. It's also not the Bellingham Herald, a paper that faces much less competition from TV, radio, and other media outlets for local news coverage within its local market. So I'm just not convinced that paywalls can ultimately save newspapers from further decline in Seattle-sized media markets.

Not that I've got a better idea. In fact, I strongly suspect that barring a total re-imagining of what it means to be a "newspaper," the industry's business model crisis is intractable. So I suppose the Seattle Times might as well give a paywall a try, as self-defeating as I expect the experiment to ultimately be.

But as much as I might disparage paywalls in practice, I think they're even worse in theory, for they threaten to destroy what in a weird way has been a sorta golden age of journalism, at least from the perspective of avid news consumers. No, really.

When I first moved to Seattle in 1992, I used to occasionally pick up a copy of the Sunday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer at the news stand in the Pike Place Market. It was expensive and a day or two late, but it was the only way to keep up with the news in my old home town. (Okay, it was the only way to keep up with the news on my beloved Philadelphia Eagles.) At that time there were still a handful of news stands in Seattle that catered to expats like me, shipping in newspapers from major cities around the world. But not for long.

The Internet changed everything.

Within a few years nearly every newspaper anywhere was on the web offering a free online edition, and ushering in an unprecedented new era of information accessibility. Where once it was a labor to keep up with current events even in nearby Tacoma or Everett, one could now feast off a smorgasbord of local content from the far reaches of the world. I no longer needed to satisfy myself with days-old coverage of an Eagles game: I could read the sports sections of Philadelphia papers same day, as well as articles in the papers covering the opposing team. And oh yeah—if something important was happening in Olympia or Spokane or the Tri-Cities, I could read those "papers" too. Amazing.

All news is local, in that it happens locally somewhere. And anybody who argues that this revolutionary explosion in access to local news wasn't a tremendous boon to our democracy is either crazy, stupid, or lying. Probably lying.

But paywalls destroy this. They are anti-revolutionary. By design. They set up artificial barriers to the diffusion of information, and to the healthy dialectic such accessibility fosters. They reject and suppress the productivity gains offered by new media technologies. Whatever additional revenue some newspapers might individually realize, at the macro level paywalls destroy value.

I'm willing to entertain the notion that paywalls are necessary to the survival of newspapers (although I doubt it). And perhaps faced with the necessity of justifying the cost of a digital subscription, the Seattle Times will reinvest this new revenue in improving its product (although again, I doubt it). And of course, as much as I loathe the Seattle Times' editorial page, I don't really want to see Seattle become a no-newspaper town, so if a paywall is crucial to the paper's survival, then I guess so be it.

But in the long run, I don't see this as either a desirable or viable solution. Like the defensive walls the Romans erected around their cities in the dying years of the Empire, these paywalls cannot forever keep the barbarians at the gates. An industry built for print, with all the infrastructure and overhead print demands, is simply not well suited to exploiting the efficiencies of the digital realm. And if newspapers cannot give news consumers what they demand, somebody else will.


Comments (38) RSS

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37 Withholding information? Because they are going to charge for it? I guess that means Netflix is withholding movies and iTunes is withholding music. If people want the product, it will succeed. If not, then it will fail. Like any other business.
Posted by ian on February 26, 2013 at 12:19 AM · Report this
@10 - you misunderstand the business entirely. First, subscriptions and news stand sales have never ever been the largest revenue source for newspapers. The service they provide is selling readers to their advertisers, not selling news to their readers - The Stranger doesn't even charge for their print edition, and as you may have noticed, they are still in business. Second, the whole industry has been turned on its head by disruptive new technologies, as with every other "analog" media industry - in effect here, the Times is changing its business model from one of disseminating information to one of withholding information. Would you put your money on that being a successful business in the 21st century? I for one wouldn't invest my life savings there.
Posted by elpablogrande on February 25, 2013 at 11:58 PM · Report this
Sean Kinney 36
Okay (heart emoticon).
Posted by Sean Kinney http:// on February 25, 2013 at 10:14 PM · Report this
Goldy 35
@34 The original tag line at HA was: "An almost daily blog on Washington State politics and the press." I do media criticism. It's always been a LARGE part of what I do.

So yeah, you'll find an awful lot of posts from me that reference the Seattle Times.
Posted by Goldy on February 25, 2013 at 9:56 PM · Report this
Sean Kinney 34
Goldy - this sucks cause I agree with you about 99 % of the time. Let's break this down:

"Why should I Tweet a Seattle Times headline if the bulk of my followers can't load the page from the embedded link? Why link to the paper's website at all, except for entirely exclusive content? "

Okay. So here we are.

The Stranger (my heroes. Fucking love you gals & guys!!!) clearly benefits from its readers' unrestricted access to the Seattle Times website (?)... as a source, as a foil, as a ping for The Stranger's pong. No? Please.

Someone with the time and sobriety should index Slog references to ST-authored articles. I presume it will be statistically significant
Posted by Sean Kinney http:// on February 25, 2013 at 9:31 PM · Report this
Have to concur with @3. Used to subscribe to the online WSJ for years, but after Murdoch bought it and turned it into the "FOX Business Journal", we let the subscription run out. And you know what, we don't miss it. The content had degraded so much. I miss the "old Dow Jones" WSJ, but not what it has become.

The reason the old WSJ was successful with a pay model, was compelling, original, exclusive content. Something the current "FOX" WSJ and the Seattle Times do not have much of.
Posted by WestSeven on February 25, 2013 at 6:49 PM · Report this
Will the paywall online version be ad-free? Will the paywall online version include hot links to the original source materials? No? Then why should anyone pay for it? And why in the world would they pay as much as the cost of a print edition?

Newspapers have always seen the bulk of their costs paid by advertisers, not subscribers. Subscribers only pay for the production and distribution, not the content. When the newspaper goes online, the cost of the production and distribution plummets. It doesn't go to zero, but it's a whole lot cheaper to have 200,000 online subscribers than to have 200,000 print subscribers.

The problem is that the Times can't charge as much for their online ads as they charge for their print ads, and that is messed up.
Posted by Charlie Mas on February 25, 2013 at 6:08 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 31
@30 is correct.

And online commenters at the ST are even older. Like fossils, only not as alive.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 25, 2013 at 6:01 PM · Report this
Stranger readers aren't young
Posted by annettefunicello on February 25, 2013 at 5:55 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 29
I'm torn.

One the one hand, I don't want to see our only remaining daily newspaper die. If I ignore their editorial page, most of the reporting is pretty decent, and they have far more reporters covering far more stuff than the Stranger or other blogs could ever hope to duplicate. I think there is value to rigorous, fact-checked, multi-sourced reporting.

On the other hand, their editorial board has become a de facto arm of the Republican party, and Frank Blethan is an asshole of the first order. I don't want to see a dime of my subscription money enriching that prick any further.

I miss the P-I every day. If the P-I is any example, their online-only version is a shadow of its former self. I have a hard time imagining the Seattle Times' fate being any different.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on February 25, 2013 at 5:40 PM · Report this
You got it right again, Goldy.

But, if the Seattle Times is in such dire financial straits, how can they lure a new investigative reporter to the fold?

Who are they moving to soft news to make room for him or her?
Posted by Fizgig on February 25, 2013 at 5:36 PM · Report this
Goldy 27
@25 et al: Um, where in this post did I demand that information should be free? I pointed out the virtues of easy access to information, and I expressed my skepticism that a paywall will prove the market solution that the Seattle Times hopes it to be. But I didn't demand anything.

I know how to advocate. This was analysis, not advocacy.
Posted by Goldy on February 25, 2013 at 4:53 PM · Report this
bigyaz @ 20 is a fucking troll from Times management, the true criminal class.
Posted by Suck it, Blethen on February 25, 2013 at 4:53 PM · Report this
Sean Kinney 25
@18 - yes forgive the tone of righteous indignation, but, I'm sorry, there is something odd about the Goldy's demand for free information that is, in fact (largely) grounded upon the long-established traditions of for-profit newsgathering companies ---- when set in contrast to his (correct) assertion that the efficient and principled delivery of government services should come at a cost. Goldy rightly bristles at the something-for-nothing culture that pervades the neocon hinterlands. His disgust with paywalls is kind of, well, hypocritical.

The Stranger occupies a very specific business model (and a very profitable one). They are THE conduit for consumers their advertisers hope to reach (young, urban, hipster, whatever). There isn't room for another Stranger. This is most obviously evidenced by the decline of The Weekly, whose audience is slightly older and more staid, but between them there is some degree of overlap. Businesses know which of the two is more efficacious.

The Seattle Times is not and never will be The Stranger. Circulation audits are, as far as I can gather, unavailable to the public without paying for them (cannot locate them on Google), but I would suspect that the majority of their subscribers live outside the liberal/left bubble we all cherish. The ST has no real need to serve the political and cultural interests of the average Stranger reader.

Still, they do hire real journalists and there is no doubt that the Seattle Times does provide something worth paying for for some folks, and often an entertaining foil for the Slog's writers.

So ask yourself this, knowing that in fact the Seattle Times pays people to work for them - are you entitled to their product for free? REALLY?

Posted by Sean Kinney http:// on February 25, 2013 at 4:39 PM · Report this
"$43.68 a year for the privilege of not having a newspaper dumped off on your doorstep."

Surely this is a mistake? Maybe you're misinterpreted their price sheet, or they made an error in it?
Posted by ryanmm on February 25, 2013 at 4:36 PM · Report this

#22 -> #1

Acknowledging what WiS said.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on February 25, 2013 at 4:23 PM · Report this
I often refer to the two Seattle "newspapers" as newsletters -- Pulitzer or not. Part of that is a personal grudge I have with the ST (hard to explain, but it involves linux) but also because they clearly represent a particular top down party line.

They are a megaphone for the entrenched powers and not all all equalized reporting in the classic sense. It's so clear this town has a crying need for what might even be called Yellow Journalism because the oppostion forces from local blogs to the stations and the presses present such a monolithic view of life here (it's snowing in the mountains!...we all want a tunnel!!) that writing comments is the only way to read something that wasn't hand crafted by the Downtown Syndicate.

Now, it's one thing to eat at the rich man's trough for free, it's another thing when he wants to charge me for eating his slop. Especially if the other rich men give me slop for free. Assuming any of that will last.

And whatever happened "crowdsourced news" and flash mobs with cell phones creating instant happenings? Yeah, right. Doesn't buy much at Target does it...
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on February 25, 2013 at 4:22 PM · Report this
Martin H. Duke 21
I thought the entire point of the porous paywall was that the paper could still be relevant because casual browsers would still be able to go. If all you're reading from the Inquirer is one Eagles story per week, the paywall won't affect you at all.

So it's really about monetizing the people who read the paper every day. More power to them.
Posted by Martin H. Duke on February 25, 2013 at 4:15 PM · Report this
Goldy, the smart guys (Jeff Jarvis et al) have been saying for years that paywalls will reduce a newspaper's relevance. But guess what? Relevance (as in being mentioned by unpaid bloggers and "curators" trying to boost their clicks) doesn't pay the salary of the lowliest newsroom clerk. Newspapers listened to this claptrap for years and look where it has gotten them. Lots of clicks (Seattle Times traffic is huge) but precious little revenue).

The current model is clearly unsustainable, yet you admit you don't have another idea to put forward. So you might as well shut the fuck up.
Posted by bigyaz on February 25, 2013 at 4:13 PM · Report this
Oh looks like that's just the .99 5-week introduction deal.
Posted by Sara Kiesler on February 25, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Report this
Print media outlets that know their trade are doing fine in the internet age. Dinosaurs like The Seattle Times, who never outgrew the newspaper-as-cash-register business model or the provincial corruption that attends it, deserve to die off. In fact, we'll be better off for it. The internet has raised the bar for what people are willing to purchase, which is a delicious table-turning for free-market wackos like the corporate welfare-addicted Times.

@SeanKinney There's a huge difference between analysis of a profit-seeking business and of Washington's worst-in-the-nation regressive tax system. There is no contradiction in Goldy's position, except maybe to Ayn Rand's maggoty, inbred children.
Posted by Che Guava on February 25, 2013 at 3:51 PM · Report this
Actually, the subscription includes a physical Sunday paper, which you could not opt out of at the check out.
Posted by Sara Kiesler on February 25, 2013 at 3:45 PM · Report this
Maybe the solution would be one paywall with a bunch of clients. If enough papers were involved, it would be useful. Avid newsreaders could pay, say, $75 a month or something and have online access to a bunch of papers. If it included access to the national papers (NYTimes, Washington Post, etc) as well as all of the regional equivalents of the Seattle Times, it would probably be worth it for a lot of folks. If you could get more local papers on board, so much the better. The uber-service could pay the various papers based on how many people looked at them or something.
Posted by rnoble on February 25, 2013 at 3:45 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 15
@4 but those are the same kind of people that comment online in the ST.

Look, the Times needs to understand that Seattle is green, liberal, and damn proud of it.

Fighting against your readership hollows you out and leaves you with lots of old grumpy people who never pay for anything anyway. No upmarket chances, fewer ad resale possibilities.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 25, 2013 at 3:44 PM · Report this
Sean Kinney 14…

98.7 percent live in areas with broadband available.
83 percent live in households with internet access.
Posted by Sean Kinney http:// on February 25, 2013 at 3:35 PM · Report this
I understand the need for revenues, and I strongly believe in local journalism. We cancelled our subscription to the Seattle Times in January - painful, but I felt like our subscription was, in effect, paying money to fight against government, unions, public schools, etc. I do agree with Goldy that this will decrease the Times' relevance, but their rightward creep, as well as their blurring between their editorial and news pages, was too much. If you want to be an openly conservative newspaper, print free ads for a Republican running for governor, fine, but it's not the best business model in the Seattle region.

@7 - I was shocked that a Mainstream Media piece - it's TIme Magazine, after all - would be so well-researched, well-written and insightful. Masterful journalism, and a must-read for anyone who is a consumer of U.S. health care.

Posted by Ebenezer on February 25, 2013 at 3:34 PM · Report this
matthewbodaly 12
hmmm. i think both can cooexist well (or... at least decently)... i would pay for a no ads version.
Posted by matthewbodaly on February 25, 2013 at 3:32 PM · Report this
@4 - Do you have a reference for that statistic of 25 percent of people not having Internet access? Is that in Washington, in Seattle, nationally, or ... what?
Posted by DisplayName01 on February 25, 2013 at 3:27 PM · Report this
Sean Kinney 10
Goldy - puuuleeassse.

"Within a few years nearly every newspaper anywhere was on the web offering a free online edition, and ushering in an unprecedented new era of information accessibility. Where once it was a labor to keep up with current events even in nearby Tacoma or Everett, one could now feast off a smorgasbord of local content from the far reaches of the world. I no longer needed to satisfy myself with days-old coverage of an Eagles game: I could read the sports sections of Philadelphia papers same day, as well as articles in the papers covering the opposing team. And oh yeah—if something important was happening in Olympia or Spokane or the Tri-Cities, I could read those "papers" too. Amazing."

How TF do you think that these media outlets could afford to pay for their online offerings (and the highly-paid IT kids or CMS services on the backend)?: A revenue source that is quickly evaporating. You know this, yet you don't want to pay?

You can't pay for a service that has value?



This doesn't square with your principled opposition to the free-rider mentality in Washington State in regards to taxation and the delivery of State services.
Posted by Sean Kinney http:// on February 25, 2013 at 3:21 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 9
It's worth noting that, if you want the dead tree edition, and you don't want to be an asshole, you have to tip your newspaper delivery person because they effectively make slave wages. So the digital edition is still not a bad deal (if you're not an asshole).
Posted by keshmeshi on February 25, 2013 at 2:50 PM · Report this
SORRY; "I am really GLAD...'
Posted by howie in seattle on February 25, 2013 at 2:45 PM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 7
They are giving you a break if you take the Sunday dead-tree edition, because that supports what's left of their advertising income. Just like Amazon gives you thirty bucks off if you buy the Kindle that throws ads at you.

What I worry about, and I know you do too, is what happens to actual real journalism in this day of starving newspapers. Real, questioning journalism fades, and credulous hackery rises. This is already happening at the almighty NY Times.

Most 'web journalism' is "oooh-squirrel!" short-attention span stuff. Yeah, occasionally they break a story, like the imaginary girlfriend of Notre Dame. But normally, no.

That said, the non-paywalled lead story of the current Time magazine on the Health Care mess is one of the best bits of journalism I can ever remember seeing in my born-in-Phila.-during-the-Eisenhower administration life.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber on February 25, 2013 at 2:44 PM · Report this
There are still people, like my wife, who want the dead trees on their door step, at least on Sunday. So we will be getting the bargain rate for internet access, not that I really need it. On the other hand, I am really lad she also gets the NY Times on Sunday, which gives me internet access, also. I feel I do really need that, if only for Joni Balter's husband.
Posted by howie in seattle on February 25, 2013 at 2:42 PM · Report this
JonnoN 5
A better business model would be having a non-crappy product that people are willing to pay for.
Posted by JonnoN on February 25, 2013 at 2:41 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
The problem is, the old print model paid for large numbers of skillful journalists to report on stuff. The free blog model does not. Sources like The Stranger supply a fair amount of local news, but nowhere near as much as the Seattle Times does -- especially if you filter out the stories that The Stranger poaches from The Times.

Seriously, pick up a Sunday Times. There are fifty stories in there that are interesting and necessary that no one else will touch -- they don't have the resources. Saying Slog is going to pick up the slack is like saying that you don't need any damn old lightbulbs when you're sitting in the dark.

In a way, it reminds me of what right-wingers say about government programs: if it was valuable, private companies would be doing it. But government programs make the world a better place, and more importantly for the sake of this argument, they make more money for private companies. Rural electrification back in the 30s made hundreds of millions for the power companies that refused to pay for it before then. Newspapers serve this community in ways that people would really miss if they were gone. And they will be gone; a blog-only world depends entirely on almost-free labor, which is unsustainable.

Also: 25% of people don't have internet at home. Those people should just fuck off and not get news at all? This brave new world doesn't seem very welcoming to the ordinary people.
Posted by Fnarf on February 25, 2013 at 2:38 PM · Report this
ferret 3
The newspaper that seemed for years to do well with a paywall was the Wall Street Journal, now under Murdoch, it has become a huge financial rat hole.

I know that Long Island Newsday had something like one subscriber or something in that range after they went to a paywall system, that wasn't previously a paid home subscriber..

However, The newspaper business is in serious financial straights, with Craigslist doing as much damage to their revenue as blogs and other internet tools.

I think a better business model is probably other internet tools, and investing and producing better media services, I just see paywalls as doubling down on an already leaky ship..
Posted by ferret http://!/okojo on February 25, 2013 at 2:28 PM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 2
I said it before. They would be better off using The Stranger business model and give the papers away.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on February 25, 2013 at 2:24 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 1
The golden age of journalism was actually the times of the Penny Dreadfuls.

Do what they did and you'll survive.

Episodic stories, tiny ads in prime spots, make the print edition more useful than the electronic edition, give a premium version for tablets (hint: Win 8 sucks so bad that most computers with it are still on shelves at 30 to 40 pct discounts, but Windows Blue is in less than 4 months) that has USEFUL STUFF in it you can't get on the others.

Nothing wrong with a bullet point free version that doesn't go into detail, and a premium version with that detail.

Oh, and bring back comics. Seriously.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM · Report this

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