Tag Archives: paywalls

Wired stands by story after Guardian denies iPhone app paywall plans

If, like me, you’re a regular reader of The Guardian‘s media coverage, or you listen to their Media Talk podcast, you might have been surprised to have read the following in the February 2010 UK edition of Wired:

The Guardian… hopes users of it’s £2.39 (iPhone) app will pay extra for privileged access to in-demand columnists. (p.89)

This seems to fly in the face of what I know about The Guardian‘s digital strategy. The Guardian have always seemed to be staunch opponents of paywalls, and Emily Bell, Director of Digital Content at Guardian News & Media, always seems to me to take a particularly strong line that she doesn’t want to charge for online content. I asked her to comment on Wired‘s claim. “I’m not sure where the ‘columnists’ assumption comes from, not us, that’s for sure. Bit off beam” she told me on Twitter (incidentally the ‘columnists’ in question include David Rowan, Wired‘s Editor, who co-wrote the piece).

So, order is restored to my universe: The Guardian is still the bastion of free online content, creatively looking for another way to make digital pay. But wait, what’s this? Wired have weighed back in, with this tweet:

@jonhickman @emilybell Came from a senior Guardian exec who demonstrated the app in person, actually

So, are The Guardian really thinking about paywalls? Was this loose talk? Has there been a misunderstanding? Is someone fibbing?

I don’t know, but I think it matters. The Guardian‘s online brand seems to be about free: free data, free access, free comment. If there’s a grain of truth in Wired‘s claim, what does it tell us about the future of online access?

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FAQ: 3 questions about paywalls

Questions from a UCLAN student on paywalls, published here as part of my FAQ section:

1.A tabloid’s cover price barely covers the distribution costs, showing all profits are aquired through advertising: Given that The Sun & Daily Mail still sell 5million copies between them, how much do you think making companies advertise across two platforms (print and online) has damaged the business model of journalism to force solutions in paywalls?

Firstly, most tabloids actually make the majority of their profits through cover price. This makes them unusual compared to most other newspapers, which rely more on advertising, but the advertising-cover price split in profits varies widely between publications. Continue reading

FAQ: How would paywalls affect advertisers? (and other questions)

More questions from a student that I’m publishing as part of the FAQ section:

1. If News Corp starts charging for news stories, do you think readers would pay or they would just go to different newspapers?

Both, but mostly the latter. Previous experiments with paywalls saw audiences drop between 60 and 97%. And you also have to figure in that a paywall will likely make content invisible to search engines (either directly or indirectly, because no one will link to them which will drop their ranking). Search engines are responsible for a significant proportion of visits (even the Wall Street Journal receives a quarter of its traffic from Google). Still, some people will always pay – the question is: how many? Continue reading

Research: news execs still think they have a monopoly

Statistics from the American Press Institute paint a strong picture of the disconnect between news executives and readers that covers

  • how much content is valued by execs and readers,
  • how easy the two camps think it is to find alternative sources of news; and
  • where readers would go if the website was turned off. That last question shows the biggest disconnect,

As reproduced below, an incredible 75% news execs think switching off their websites will drive people to their newspapers. Readers, however, are saying they would go to another local website, with other prominent alternatives including regional and national websites, TV and radio (note that news execs also feel that ‘local media sites’ will benefit but users disagree): Continue reading

In defence of paywalls redux: what he said

Back in June I posted ‘In defence of paywalls (a thought experiment)‘ where I said: “When you’re driving a tanker and you see a big rock ahead – do you ask everyone on the ship to rebuild it as an aeroplane? Or do you start steering away in the hope that your part of the tanker will somehow avoid the worst?”

I’ve only just come across a piece written in the same month by Michael Nielsen which expresses the same points in a much more rigorous way during a piece on disruption in general (h/t Jo Geary). It’s well worth reading in full, but here’s how he puts it so much better than I:

Continue reading

Data and the future of journalism panel discussion: Linked Data London

Tonight I had the pleasure of chairing an extremely informative panel discussion on data and the future of journalism at the first London Linked Data Meetup. On the panel were:

What follows is a series of notes from the discussion, which I hope are of some use.

For a primer on Linked Data there is A Skim-Read Introduction to Linked DataLinked Data: The Story So Far PDF) by Tom Heath, Christian Bizer and Berners-Lee; and this TED video by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (who was on the panel before this one).

To set some brief context, I talked about how 2009 was, for me, a key year in data and journalism – largely because it has been a year of crisis in both publishing and government. The seminal point in all of this has been the MPs’ expenses story, which both demonstrated the power of data in journalism, and the need for transparency from government – for example, the government appointment of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, seeking developers to suggest things to do with public data, and the imminent launch of Data.gov.uk around the same issue.

Even before then the New York Times and Guardian both launched APIs at the beginning of the year, MSN Local and the BBC have both been working with Wikipedia and we’ve seen the launch of a number of startups and mashups around data including Timetric, Verifiable, BeVocal, OpenlyLocal, MashTheState, the open source release of Everyblock, and Mapumental.

Q: What are the implications of paywalls for Linked Data?

The general view was that Linked Data – specifically standards like RDF – would allow users and organisations to access information about content even if they couldn’t access the content itself. To give a concrete example, rather than linking to a ‘wall’ that simply requires payment, it would be clearer what the content beyond that wall related to (e.g. key people, organisations, author, etc.)

Leigh Dodds felt that using standards like RDF would allow organisations to more effectively package content in commercially attractive ways, e.g. ‘everything about this organisation’.

Q: What can bloggers do to tap into the potential of Linked Data?

This drew some blank responses, but Leigh Dodds was most forthright, arguing that the onus lay with developers to do things that would make it easier for bloggers to, for example, visualise data. He also pointed out that currently if someone does something with data it is not possible to track that back to the source and that better tools would allow, effectively, an equivalent of pingback for data included in charts (e.g. the person who created the data would know that it had been used, as could others).

Q: Given that the problem for publishing lies in advertising rather than content, how can Linked Data help solve that?

Dan Brickley suggested that OAuth technologies (where you use a single login identity for multiple sites that contains information about your social connections, rather than creating a new ‘identity’ for each) would allow users to specify more specifically how they experience content, for instance: ‘I only want to see article comments by users who are also my Facebook and Twitter friends.’

The same technology would allow for more personalised, and therefore more lucrative, advertising.

John O’Donovan felt the same could be said about content itself – more accurate data about content would allow for more specific selling of advertising.

Martin Belam quoted James Cridland on radio: “[The different operators] agree on technology but compete on content”. The same was true of advertising but the advertising and news industries needed to be more active in defining common standards.

Leigh Dodds pointed out that semantic data was already being used by companies serving advertising.

Other notes

I asked members of the audience who they felt were the heroes and villains of Linked Data in the news industry. The Guardian and BBC came out well – The Daily Mail were named as repeat offenders who would simply refer to “a study” and not say which, nor link to it.

Martin Belam pointed out that The Guardian is increasingly asking itself ‘How will that look through an API’ when producing content, representing a key shift in editorial thinking. If users of the platform are swallowing up significant bandwidth or driving significant traffic then that would probably warrant talking to them about more formal relationships (either customer-provider or partners).

A number of references were made to the problem of provenance – being able to identify where a statement came from. Dan Brickley specifically spoke of the problem with identifying the source of Twitter retweets.

Dan also felt that the problem of journalists not linking would be solved by technology. In conversation previously, he also talked of “subject-based linking” and the impact of SKOS and linked data style identifiers. He saw a problem in that, while new articles might link to older reports on the same issue, older reports were not updated with links to the new updates. Tagging individual articles was problematic in that you then had the equivalent of an overflowing inbox.

(I’ve invited all 4 participants to correct any errors and add anything I’ve missed)

Finally, here’s a bit of video from the very last question addressed in the discussion (filmed with thanks by @countculture):

Linked Data London 090909 from Paul Bradshaw on Vimeo.

In defence of paywalls (a thought experiment)

It may be received wisdom that paywalls don’t work, but that seems to me a great reason to challenge that wisdom.

Here’s the thing: the media landscape as we know it is now unsustainable.

It doesn’t matter if all newspapers stopped publishing online overnight, or blocked Google, or anything else. The problem lies offline: the business model no longer supports the debts. The advertising has left the building.

Now news organisations are looking to online to save them.

And hence we come to paywalls.

Turning around a tanker

If you work in a news organisation this is the institutional position: your whole structure is built around selling and distributing 2 things: advertising; and platforms filled with content (newspapers).

Now, when the first (and main) revenue stream goes, what do you do? Do you take a long-view gamble on something that requires you to restructure the culture of your organisation? Or do you go with route of trying, somehow, to get people to pay for content alone?

Seen alone, that may look like a flawed strategy. Your product is perishable, the customers have already paid for the platform, and you don’t control the distribution.

But the people you have to convince in your organisation believe their work is worth paying for. Do you lose time and money convincing them otherwise, or do you move fast because time isn’t something you have to spend?

Do you come up with an idea that requires investment and change – which also takes time – or do you come up with one which adjusts the existing model cheaply – and quickly – and is more likely to bring in some money, even if not at the levels which might secure the long-term future of the organisation?

Do you come up with an idea that looks to protect what revenues you have?

When you’re driving a tanker and you see a big rock ahead – do you ask everyone on the ship to rebuild it as an aeroplane? Or do you start steering away in the hope that your part of the tanker will somehow avoid the worst?

Sometimes we need to make mistakes twice. Sometimes things change enough to make it work second time round. Sometimes it’s in the execution and not the concept. And sometimes things need to get worse before they get better.

What happens next

I can see a number of things happening as a result of news organisations charging for content:

  • First, it will put organisations like the BBC, NPR, ProPublica and (to a lesser extent) Guardian in a strong position to claim they are providing a public service and appeal for, retain, or increase, public and donor funding. Among all of the mercenary rhetoric it’s worth remembering that news has a civic and democratic value as well as a commercial one.
  • Second, it will strengthen the ability of any organisation that has free content to attract larger visitor numbers and therefore higher advertising revenue. In effect, the paywalled news organisations will be giving up on at least part of their advertising, which will actually make it easier for other news organisations to make advertising viable.
    (And yes, paywalls may well be the final nail in the coffin for some companies – it’s fair to say that advertising revenue is now so thinly spread that it will not support the number of media outlets it once did. Let’s not extend that misery. Some news organisations have already lost.)
  • Third, it should put pressure on paywalled news organisations to create unique, valuable content that people are willing to pay for. That’s a very different dynamic to filling column inches with a roundup of what’s happened in the past 24 hours. And it’s a very different commercial context to the one that led to only 12% of stories in the quality press being generated by reporters.
  • Fourth, it will most likely force news organisations to look beyond content alone and towards providing services like those that have given some creative news organisations profit margins of nearly 30 percent.
  • Fifth, for that reason we might discover some models that actually work. And we’ll discover which ones don’t. It’s never as simple as ‘Paywalls don’t work’. History may suggest it’s not a gamble that’s likely to pay off, but there may still be a black swan out there.
  • And finally, it will clear the way for independent media companies and startups to do more with their own content and services, and more agile business models. They will have the luxury of starting from scratch, without debts to service, stakeholders to satisfy, or cultures to rebuild.

So when the alternative is a slow, passive agonising death, let’s stop fussing about hypotheticals and let the Great Paywall Experiment begin.