More pay walls coming down

The Wall Street Journal’s Lord Master Rupert Murdoch has decided to drop the pay wall on WSJ.com content, just a few weeks after the New York Times decided to let all its content online be free. Both newspapers are betting on the fact that increased online ad revenue will balance out the reduced subscription revenue.

MediaShift has a good blog post summarizing the arguments in favour and against dropping the pay wall, including its effects on paper subscriptions and volatility of the online advertising market.

One of the blog posts it links to says in one sentence my chief concern about all this: “Are we seeing the death of the paid content model?

I like free content. I like not having to pay to download stuff on my computer. I like being able to read articles from all sorts of newspapers. I like blogs and YouTube and Flickr.

But I’m also one of many people who is trying to make a living off of this “content” thing, and along with all this free content is a race to the bottom, with content providers seeking cheaper and cheaper content. Many now seriously expect people to work for them for free, hoping that not even five minutes of maybe-fame will be enough to cloud their judgment and cause them to ignore the fact that they have to put food on their table.

The bigger problem is that as content gets cheaper and cheaper, so does the work being produced for those low salaries. Investigative journalism disappears completely, journalists get lazy and become stenographers, columnists write uninteresting fluff about their daily lives, and the wall between editorial and advertising starts getting blurry.

We seem to accept being charged for content only when it exists on a physical medium, like books, DVDs and newspapers. Is there any purely digital content that people will keep paying for in the future, or is advertising expected to cover everything? (And with all the increasing content on the Internet, can we possibly have enough advertising interest to bankroll it all?)

We’ll see. By my count only two major Canadian dailies still have pay walls on their websites: The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir. Are they coming next, or will they buck the trend?

2 thoughts on “More pay walls coming down

  1. Denis Canuel

    It’s normal because media = business. Businesses have no social responsibility; they must make money. Any CEO who claims the opposite is actually doing marketing (and lying).

    So just like groceries are cutting down on “grocery baggers”, big medias are cutting on staff. They have to compete with a “free model” so how can they win in the long run? I’d like to know but I guess it involves burning a lot of money followed by a face plant.

    The current model doesn’t (and cannot) work. If you take a look at the IT world, when good people get laid off, they become consultants. The “bad ones” move on to something else. They even take easier jobs just to stay afloat.

    My advise (for what it’s worth..) is to be in a niche and be damn good in it. The old saying of “jack of all trades, master of none” always applies.

    I work in the financial domain and some analysts pay big bucks (you’d be surprised how much they pay) for very specialized content. So there is money to be made as an independent journalist. Perhaps not by covering fender benders but by doing niche reporting. Leave fender benders to citizen journalists / crowdsourcing. It’s inevitably the future in my opinion (at least for local stuff), but hey, I could be wrong.

    The main issue now is that independent journalists don’t have a place to go “on their own”. They have no where to go and starting a blog is not a sure way to become wealthy. It’s a nice marketing tool, but you need to sell your content, right?

    Think about Radiohead. They dropped the top layer to go directly to users. Same will happen with news. There is no decent platform right now, but I bet you a drink that it’s coming soon! :)

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  2. Fagstein Post author

    I don’t oppose the changes that are coming to journalism. I can access press releases directly now. I can see government statistics and analyze them as a citizen. I can find just about any wire service story online now (and I’ll tend to link to the ones on websites with the least amount of advertising). I think there’s going to be a lot less of this cut-and-paste regurgitation.

    One thing, for example, that I look forward to is the day when police departments put daily reports online. Currently, newspapers hire journalists who call the departments every hour or so and waste someone’s time finding out what crimes have been committed and what major accidents have happened. I think eventually they’ll realize that it’s easier to put this online and let the journalists recopy it.

    This will, hopefully, free up journalists to do more analysis of data, investigative journalism, and other things that take more time and involve real research.

    But the pessimist in me thinks it’s more likely that newspapers are going to become even more cut-and-paste/stenography than they currently are, encouraging even lazier journalism and accelerating their downfall with greatly reduced quality.

    Leaving journalism strictly to free market forces (money, popularity, etc.) will mean more marketing-as-journalism, more fluff, more lazy reporting, more copyright infringement, more fake news and less of the kind of serious reporting that newspapers are known for.

    I’m not necessarily arguing that investigative journalism (i.e. journalism that involves a lot of work) is the ticket to economic success for newspapers. I’m arguing that this is all newspapers have left to set themselves apart, and they’re shooting themselves in the foot by cutting it.

    And if newspapers don’t do hard, serious, expensive journalism, who will?

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