The Pay Wall Minority

I have made a lot of philosophical arguments about the pay wall in the past. At the heart of those is the fact that restricting access to news, information, content and valuable local resources that are inherent within print institutions, to me, seems like a contradiction of what is the reason for a free press: increasing the marketplace of public discourse.

I am in fact talking about the “liberty” version of free, in this sense, not the cost kind. I just want to be clear about exactly where I drawn the line when it comes to journalists. I believe there is a very important aspect of news, but I also recognize that it should not be reduced to a basic public service and that its authors have a right to make a living off of sharing information.

With those two waivers out of the way, here is the evidence of the day regarding the problem with building a pay wall around that same content these journalists produce.

First, there is a nice long form piece (with the accompanying video) over on CBS from over the weekend that looks at the implications asking if readers will ever pay for news. Outlining the different proposals on the table, CBS noted this important consideration for a paid system of online news:

The ability to decide the criteria to charge readers and not others. This goes well beyond the simple basic vs. premium concept. At some point, usage intensity will have to be factored in. That means the first taste is free but you must pay if you keep coming back. Weirdly, all the papers I’m reading on the subject don’t do much to explore this notion. Yet, it is crucial to readership segmentation.

While this looks at a lot of the ways content may be put behind the wall, it doesn’t necessarily answer the own question posed in its headline. The variety of models and methods proposed doesn’t necessarily get over the elephant in the room that consumers may just not pay regardless of what custom options they have.

This isn’t anything alarming, if you ask me. I have been one to argue that there will always be some way to get to the information (and many of it will likely continue in the two-step flow idea; someone will pay for it, and then they become the hub of their social circle of news as they pass it around). I was surprised to see that there may actually be hesitance from the other side of the aisle (the bold is mine):

A bare 51% of the newspaper publishers in the United States believe they can charge successfully for access to their interactive content, according to a survey released today. The other 49% of publishers either fear that pay walls will fail or just aren’t sure. The survey, which was conducted for the latest in the series of industry conferences this year studyng how to monetize the valuable content most newspapers give away for free, shows that publishers who are worried about charging for content have good reason to be concerned. While 68% of the publishers responding to the survey said they thought readers who objected to paying for content would have a difficult time replacing the information they get from newspaper websites, 52% of polled readers said it would be either “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to do so.

(cc) Flickr User Steve Webel

(cc) Flickr User Steve Webel

Add that to the fact that barely two-thirds of these publishers think that the pay wall would keep non-payers out of their content – given the hopes for this method of saving the “news” – I consider this to be a low response.

This is the ultimate zero-sum game. All you need is one publisher to keep the wall open (remember David Simon’s CJR rant that it was all or nothing?) and it won’t work. If publishers can’t universally agree on a wall, than they must universally agree to find a better method of finding ways to earn the needed funds to pay their journalists. The smartest journalists will not only be those who produce the best content, but also find the solution at the bottom of the barrel that will help them become their own foundation.

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