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On pay walls

March 26, 2010

The Times and The Sunday Times announced their paywall plans today. I’m a journalist, but I won’t be subscribing, and I’m hoping that they don’t do well. Here’s why…

Let’s start with the excellent A Brief History of Paywalls from Jon Radoff’s blog.

A paywall is a digital mechanism to separate content that one has to pay for from the rest of the content on the net.  Think of it like the Internet equivalent of the Berlin Wall: a few unknowns, stifled by their overlords, exist on the inside–yearning to join the free world beyond.

Yes indeed. One of the major advantages of online over print for a writer is that anyone, anywhere in the world can find your work, read it and then perhaps even comment on it or email you. The stats on this blog have shown me that people googled random things to get here, or even my name every now and then, and some have read translated pages of my blog, in languages I can’t even read the letters of, such as Russian. It’s amazing to click on the link and see my words translated, because someone was so interested in reading something. You don’t get that from print.

You also don’t get that if your writing is stranded behind a paywall. When I’ve written for Film & Festivals magazine, my work has gone behind a paywall. I get to see it because I’m a contributor, but no one else gets the chance to stumble upon it, or search for it, the two main ways people find this blog. So, I’ve posted the text up on this blog (like the title? All me!). Note the bit.ly urls written in brackets next to the song names – this was written with print in mind.

I didn’t get paid for the article, but the magazine will make money from selling online subscriptions, so why not put my own work up where people can chance upon it, or google it? But how will that work for writers on The Times papers? Who owns the copyright – the writer or the online host/newspaper company? And what will happen if they start putting their work from The Times onto their own blogs – will they be allowed? How to police it anyway? It’s not as though I’m even using the layout or anything that the magazine put in – it’s my text, with links and pictures that I found.

So how well have paywalls worked so far? As Radoff puts it on his blog, “The history of paywalls is pretty negative.” Subscription just doesn’t work the same way online as it does IRL. Paywalls tend to work well on financial news sites with sterling repuations like ft.com and wsj.com: these sites own that nice, and their core demographic will pay to get their news asap.

For hard news, paywalls simply can’t work, unless all internet content goes paid-for – it’s everywhere, and people could just switch on TV if they wanted. As Ben Camm-Jones puts it, “whereas people tend to stick to one newspaper, they’ll visit a variety of different organisations to get their online news fix.” Yes. How about features, opinion pieces, favourite columnists? Maybe people would pay for that. It’s a big if, though.

I’m not against paying for journalism at all – it needs to happen much, much more. I graduated from unniversity in 2005 and undertook a fair number of unpaid  journalism internships, then took an expensive journalism course, in order to get a job in journalism. The entry-level jobs and newspaper training schemes from days of yore have become unpaid work experience labour and post-grad courses for those with generous parents or a ton of funding. Journalism is dominated by the people who could afford to get into it. That isn’t right. The money situation needs to be sorted out.

Ijust  don’t think walling content off and then expecting most people to pay to read what they’ve free access to for a decade is the solution. Back to Radoff:

However, I think the big thing that traditional journalism is missing is that the online experience is not just about the content.  It is about the relationships.  Relationships are why blogs (and social networks) are more valuable than traditional publish-and-forget media.

Furthermore, loss of relationships has the potential for devastating the content behind paywalls: not only are customers going to engage elsewhere, becoming part of communities elsewhere on the Web — but the journalists writing behind paywalls are being cheated of the opportunity to build their own broader notoriety and personal brands.

YES. Linking, people. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and I often come to things from a couple of removes. For instance, I discovered The Times columnist Caitlin Moran through Twitter. She is brilliant. She is the genius who pointed out that David Cameron is, of course, a “slightly camp gammon robot.David Gameron. YES. With that one phrase, she has done for the anti-Tories what Tina Fey has done for Alec Baldwin’s career. Ta very much, Our Lady of Moran.

Unfortunately, Queen Cait is also quite, well, very, pro-wall. Ah well, no one is completely perfect.

She makes the excellent point that journos need to earn money; yep, I hear that. Problem is, paywalling up is shutting the door after the horse has bolted, and then stopping the writer’s work reaching the widest possible audience. So advertisers might drop off.

Then, there’s the border guard issue. These paywalls have to be policed; people like free things and they like getting round things, especially if it annoys Rupert Murdoch.

Will the money from online payments make up for the loss of some advertising revenue anf the cost of guarding the wall? Will it make up for the writers losing some exposure for their work? Will it lead to people buying more newspapers? This would be a nice thing – I much prefer the physical papers of a Sunday, I spend nuff time staring at a screen all week – but online is a different matter. It reaches a worldwide audience, and people are more likely to email a link on, than find a page from a magazine to give to a friend. It allows for linking, which can add depth and background to a story without interrupting its flow. It allows for comments and instant feedback – Jon Radoff of redoff.com, from which I have quoted copiously throughout this post, had emailed me with kind comments before I’d even finished the post!

Really, the big media organisations should seen this coming when the internet started becoming something that normal people would get in their homes and at work. We got dial-up at home 11 years ago, when I was 16. I can still hear distinctive modem sound… da-dum da-dum da-dum… ahhh, that slow old internet. Why, oh media organisations, why did you rush straight in with the free websites, and think “oh, we’ll monetise that stuff later”? Did you forget about the business side of things, Murdoch et al? Sort your mess out, don’t penalise your consumers. Come on.

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