The slippery slope of newspaper paywalls

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In case you haven’t heard, The New York Times launched its paywall system on March 28, 2011. Their paywall is an attempt to monetize the content generated by the news professionals at the Times, and “save the newspaper industry.”

Speaking as a Web enthusiast, I’m going to predict that this will be a bumpy road for them. Not because people will only consume free content, because the spirit of the paywall is poor.

Here’s how I see it: Picture the ocean, but instead of water it’s filled with content. Now consider the Times going into the ocean, scooping up a tumbler full, and telling everyone that this is protected. The content isn’t that different from what I could find in a related publication or from a blogger who’s summarizing what the Times just published a minute ago… so do I really need that tumbler full? No. It would be nice to have it, but I can get something else very similar on the next site over.

The Internet is where we play, learn, research, interact, and nurture some of our closest relationships. It’s as free as the great outdoors. Closing off content areas as a way to generate additional revenue on top of an existing ad revenue model is distasteful and destructive. It’s like building a shopping mall, then building a barbed wire fence around the mall in order to charge admission to go shopping.

Aren’t we (as news consumers) helping news media’s bottom line by viewing & clicking on ads? Aren’t we supposed to be part of the news community by submitting stories and commenting on articles? Don’t we help the search engines find the most valuable content on news Web sites by posting hyperlinks to their content in our social media and personal Web sites? And if all of these things are worthless to news outlets, then the onus is on them to find a way to monetize this organic behavior instead of punishing readers with fees.

Here are the (very real) problems with paywall:

By hiding content behind a pay-to-play (login) system, they are killing their search engine rankings. It is a well-known fact that any content behind a login of any kind can’t be indexed. The paywall ruins any chance of attracting any news readers from Search — paid or unpaid.

The paywall is unenforceable. So now that the Times has angered the Internet, they can expect their content to be pasted in full on hundreds of blogs all across the Internet. And good luck enforcing copyrights, because the people posting the news are going to be elusive and probably not wealthy.

The paywall will hurt their online ad revenue model. Given the fact that ad revenue is probably still the best chance for newspapers to generate revenue online, the Times will need the traffic. Huge numbers. But now they’re screwing themselves by hiding their content from interested viewers and search engines alike. Instead of generating more money from fewer eyeballs, they’ll get fewer paying eyeballs and less ad revenue. Nice plan.

Maybe newspapers have it backward

When looking for comparable media business models, I looked at CNN, local news stations and bloggers and had an epiphany: Newspapers tend to put a little bit of content online and then give their greatest content push via their print version. Meanwhile broadcast journalism outlets (and bloggers) put all kinds of content on their Web sites and then craft “shows” (or Home pages/channels) based on what they think is the most interesting content. It’s just an idea.

Hey newspapers: stop thinking about paper

Consumers under the age of 50(ish) are mortified by the fantastic consumption of paper by the Newspaper industry. We are racked with guilt at holding so much paper for such a short period of time before just tossing it into the recycle bin.

I don’t think we could be clearer about how we want to consume the news. We’re trying to read the content via phone, Kindle, iPad, online… ANYTHING to get away from the paper. We want your content. We will ultimately pay for the content with our attention. Think outside the ream.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.