Reinventing the Newsroom

Paywalls, Tradeoffs and Other Journalism Questions

Posted in Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on June 24, 2010

This post is a bit of an experiment: I wrote it on the iPad via the WordPress app, using a Bluetooth keyboard. We’ll see how it goes.

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Add the Tallahassee Democrat to the list of news organizations instituting a paywall, starting July 1. That’s part of a Gannett initiative that will involve three papers initially.

I spoke with Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, back in September, and found him to be thoughtful about his craft and his business. And every experiment in paid content will yield our industry more data and more information about best practices, which is what we need. So I wish him and his folks luck.

(Disclosure for the next part: I’m a consultant for Journalism Online, which supports a range of payment options, but whose standard model is metered access. Though I’m a consultant for JOL in part because our views about paid content are simpatico.)

That said, I worry that the Democrat’s experiment is doomed to fail or at best achieve unimpressive results. The absolutist paywall (services, classifieds and the like will be outside, as well as potentially some content such as obituaries) is an awfully high hurdle for potential subscribers to clear. The metered model, on the other hand, effectively targets a news organization’s most-engaged and loyal readers and tries to convert them to subscribers, without bothering occasional visitors who aren’t good prospects for subscriptions anyway. In this way, a meter preserves a news organization’s visibility in search and social media, which ought to help ensure a steady flow of new readers.

The second aspect of Tallahassee’s plan that worries me is that current home-delivery customers get online access for no additional charge. While I understand the impulse to reward loyal subscribers who’ve effectively been footing the bills for everyone else, I think that kind of bundle is a mistake because it reinforces a perception that’s brought our industry no small amount of trouble: that online content has no value. I think readers expect online subscriptions to cost less than print ones, because they understand that producing an online newspaper doesn’t require paper and trucks and kids with satchels on bikes. (They still exist out there somewhere, right?) But that’s not the same as saying that you should get online content for nothing because the print version hits your screen door in the early morning. Continuing to give online away now, even in the name of protecting print, makes it harder to charge for it tomorrow.

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An interesting discussion has sprung up around Michael Hastings’ profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone: Did Hastings write a less-varnished profile because he was a freelancer instead of a beat reporter, and therefore didn’t need to pull punches so he could preserve access to his subject?

Politico writers Gordon Lubold and Carole E. Lee certainly seemed to think so, writing that “as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.” But that observation disappeared from later versions of their story, leaving NYU’s Jay Rosen to wonder what the heck was going on.

I don’t know why Politico dropped that: Lubold and Lee’s observation struck me not as revealing any sinister secret, but as an admission of an unfortunate aspect of beat-writing. (Update: A Politico writer emailed Jay Rosen that there’s no conspiracy — it’s just that that material came to seem tangential. I see no reason to doubt that.) Ask any sports fan, and he or she will tell you that the best time to find out what the relationships were like in a locker room is after a player, coach or manager moves on. This can be annoying as a reader, but I understand it as a journalist. Or perhaps I drunk the Kool-Aid a long time ago: Covering a beat, particularly when your subjects are members of a rather guarded fraternity, demands not just reporting and writing skills, but a certain amount of diplomacy. Is exploring something painful today worth being shut out tomorrow? Are readers better served by building relationships with subjects that will yield a steady flow of more interesting information? Not every reporter who leaves something out of a story is in the tank for a subject, just as not every reporter who leaves something out of a story does so to serve some perceived higher good. A certain messiness is inherent to the process and the relationship. (And frankly, this will only getting messier as more and more sources bypass the press to speak directly.)

On the other hand, Rolling Stone quite clearly shot itself in the foot — heck, it blasted off the whole limb — by not being ready with an online version of what it had to know would be a huge story.

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Because you can’t get enough of me: I chatted recently with Mike Wilkinson of the Detroit News and Columbia’s Chasen Marshall about the flow of information and whether athletes should be thought of as role models in our fast-forward, digital world. (Respectively.) That two-edged sword metaphor of mine needs some work.

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IPad Experiment verdict: OK, I’m missing some basic functionality in terms of font styles, centering text, and the like, or perhaps couldn’t figure out how to unlock it. I had to fall back on my rudimentary knowledge of HTML. The bigger problem is it’s much harder to multitask, meaning I wrote this with TKs for everything from people’s names to links and quotes, and had to laboriously fill them by saving this draft, going back to the main screen, starting the browser, finding Web sites, copying stuff and pasting it in, lather rinse repeat. This would work much better for a post that was more an off-the-cuff observation or essay than anything that links out a lot.

And embarrassingly, I didn’t realize you can’t remote-publish from a free WordPress account, so I wound up copying and pasting this into an email and pubbing it the old-fashioned way. But hey, as a proof of concept, you can do a basic blog post via iPad. That’s pretty cool.

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