Posted by: structureofnews | March 23, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin’

There’s been so much ink spilled already on the coming paywall/metered model at the New York Times – not all of it all that informed – that the world hardly needs another blog post on the subject.  But then again, if we only did what the world needed, it would be a pretty boring place.

So here’s two cents more on the pile.   For some reason the topic of paywalls elicits a huge amount of passion; and so does the NYT.  So together they’ve fueled a flood of opinion, from how it’s an obscene shake-down of consumers to how it’s a backward-looking plan that has distracted corporate attention and resources from real innovation to how Arthur Sulzberger Jr.  is risking his legacy.   There’s plenty to read (and some good stuff, too) from estimates of revenues to rants about information needing to be free.

But probably the best comment on all of this is by Bill Grueskin, former managing editor of and now dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school.

All those who say the paywall won’t work, or that it will, don’t know. They’re making it up.

It’s true.  Not because the people who are commenting aren’t smart, but because we’re exploring a new kind of consumer behavior, and it’s not going to be really clear until it happens just how people take to paying for content.  That’s not to say that we can’t make some good guesses, or that we can’t extrapolate from behavior elsewhere, or that market research on completely new products is completely useless.

But behavior online is still extremely plastic; what we do these days – post on Facebook, tweet, read stories recommended by our friends – wasn’t what we did five years ago; and what we did five years ago wasn’t what we did five years before that.  And it’s likely we’ll be doing different things five years from now.

It helps, obviously, to make intelligent guesses about what people might or might not do and then tweak your product once you actually see their behavior.   So what the Times is doing is providing a great experiment that we can all watch and hopefully learn something from.

If we went purely by logic, lots of products wouldn’t make sense.  Bottled water – not just bottled water, but premium bottled water.   There’s some sense to paying for convenience (ie, a handy bottle) and some assurance of safety.  But why pay more for extra-special water?  But people do.  And so it is for a host of goods and services that we all happily shell out money for.

So let’s wait and see.  Seek truth from facts.  The Times isn’t the only thing that’s changing.  We, the consumers, are too.


  1. Reg,

    Thanks for checking in on this. It also seems to have applicability in terms of restructuring the news. Rather than offer opinion about the blizzard of prior commentary elsewhere, it might be more useful to point out some of the dogs not barking.

    Although it may sound like some kind of technorati heresy, it seems to me that the “information wants to be free” meme has gone past its sell-by date. It might also be pointed out that anyone who has ever read the entire Brand quote knows the original context was not the same. This is not a new philosophical issue. Back at the dawn of the Internet, there was bitter debate about whether or not to even allow companies on the ‘Net, followed by other fights about whether they should be allowed to do eCommerce or advertise.

    Up until now, I would have said paywalls were a generally bad idea with the exception of sites related to business or, to a lesser extent, sports. Somehow, in a way that’s difficult to articulate, you get the feeling that the NYT’s metered implementation is fundamentally different in the sense of being less draconian and more, for want of a better word, tunable.

    And I can also understand the objection that by putting in a meter, you are somehow punishing your most loyal readers. But the potential also exists to implement value-added benefits made available only to those who subscribe. Ask yourself this: what is the effect if the value of those benefits exceeds the cost of the subscription?

    Yet another factor is that a metered approach gives readers not only a clear sense of the quality of content presented but also an opportunity to show that they value the content. Such an expression of perceived value means they are no longer simply a set of advertising eyeballs, but instead a reader with a vested interest in the news produced.


    • Perry,

      Thanks again for a smart comment.

      There’s no question that “information wants to be free” has lost all value – if it ever had any. It is true that it’s hard to charge for information of a certain type, because there are plenty of free alternatives, but that’s a market issue, not an ideological tenet.

      I didn’t use to be a fan of the metered model over the hybrid paywall that the Journal had; but I’ve come to see the utility in a model that you can adjust and, as you put it, “tune”. And it offers drive-by readers the chance to really browse the contents of a site before deciding to buy.

      Ultimately, I suspect, there will be a basic meter model for commercial news sites, with extra-special stuff solidly locked behind a premium paywall/membership club.

      The trouble is that those revenues are still unlikely to cover content creation costs, at least as newsrooms are currently constituted; so unless we can goose revenue numbers significantly, we’ll need to really find ways to bring costs down. Or both. Hence my interest in restructuring news processes while not killing off great stories.



  2. […] our stories, or tweets – it’s understanding better what people want.  And while that’s changing all the time, we still haven’t found the magic formula that gives us an extra couple of hours a […]

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