When confronted with these facts, the old guard almost always makes an "ADHD culture" crack. Because obviously the entire world must be disabled instead of Rupert Murdoch being wrong.

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One of the most cogent folks I know, particularly in discussions of publishing and the internet, is Adam Tinworth. I've known Adam through a number of settings, but the one most germane to the discussion is as a business journalist. He's a very, very good one. He's also a fine hand with a fencing iron, I'm given to understand, and as someone who once upon a time stumbled through his share of sabre matches I can respect that, but it's not really a factor in the discussion at hand.

Well, Adam recently blogged about content and paywalls -- touching on the current issues with his usual skill and wisdom. Certainly, the topics he addresses in terms of journalism will resonate with anyone following the somewhat tragic conflict between newspaper cartoonists and web cartoonists. It's a good read.

However, it's not Adam's post, but a comment someone made to him about it that really gets to the heart of the matter. He posted a followup that included that comment, and I've never seen the core disconnect highlighted so well. With Adam's permission, I reproduce it here:

The model you have of your consumer's behaviour is wrong, they aren't using the internet as a way of reading a newspaper, they are using the internet, some of which consists of newspaper content, its a different thing. It was bad enough having to explain this in 1999, I find it a bit surprising it still needs saying in 2009.

That's it. That's the whole shooting match in a nutshell. That's why newspapers that are coming up with new paywall schemes will lose. That's why the internet will win. In the end, the process is inexorable, because the battle is not over content. It is over convenience.

Look at the Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia. I have had harsh words for Wikipedia in the past, and I stand by them, but I'll also be honest: I use Wikipedia every day. The Britannica, on the other hand, was the encyclopedia of record for much much longer than not only I've been alive but my father's been alive. When the Britannica went CD-ROM, I bought it, and bought a copy for my sister's children. It thrilled me that for a tiny amount of money I had access to this seminal resource.

I wouldn't dream of shelling that money out today, even though I (mostly) trust the Britannica's content above Wikipedia's. The Britannica isn't convenient. I can't just link to it when I'm making references to it. I can't just search it casually from any machine without having to fumble with passwords. It takes effort.

Wikipedia is just there. It is always at hand. It is always easy to reach. And it's far more comprehensive on the kinds of minutia and trivia I really need an encyclopedia for than the Britannica could ever be. Is it a trusted source? No, not really. But it's a great launching point for an investigation if I need a trusted source, and for quick "at-hand" information it's simply unparalleled.

And as a result, several orders of magnitude more people check Wikipedia every hour than check the Britannica website every day. It's not that it's better. It's that it's convenient, when all you want to do is look something up quickly and then get back to the websurfing you were already doing.

I don't know very many people who read a newspaper cover to cover, whether online or on paper. But a lot of people read articles that are germane to them right at that moment. Articles get linked on twitter or Livejournal. Google gathers these things together and points people at them when they're interested. And news sources that accept that they're a brief stopover on one's daily web journey get far more traffic than news sources that make a person jump through hoops to get the news. Bring money into the equation, and suddenly that readership drops by another order of magnitude or two. Robert Murdoch and those like him may assert the value of their goods, and equally assert that content must be paid for, but the only thing they can possibly do is make their content irrelevant to the broader world that's coming.

Let me repeat that.

The only thing paywalls or other direct monetization can do for newspapers or any other topical content is make it irrelevant to the world of the internet age.

Let us say that Murdoch succeeds at making his newspapers secure against Google aggregation and other such things. What happens in that scenario? What does basic capitalism tell us happens in a situation like that? Simply put, someone else develops a product that fills the niche no longer being filled. Some other journalistic organization will step up, develop a model around online advertising or some other thing we haven't even heard of yet, and happily reap the benefits. And let us be crystal clear: that organization might have demonstrably inferior news coverage, and it will not matter. Just like Wikipedia and the Britannica, the convenient Internet stop will trump the more prestigious but less convenient news source.

Let me repeat that.

An inferior news source that is easy to reach and consume on the internet will trump superior news sources that are even slightly harder to reach. Every time.

This is true whether we're talking about the Wall Street Journal or Hi and Lois comic strips -- people are going to gravitate to those things that fit the activities they're already doing. If two newspaper articles -- or comic strips -- are equally available to the online reading public, then the relative merits of one versus the other will determine ultimate popularity. If one article -- or comic -- is freely accessible and the other one requires cumbersome registration or, worse yet, a paid subscription, then the freely accessible one will have monumentally more readers than the other, regardless of their relative quality.

People don't go to the Internet to read The New York Times (with rare exceptions). People go to the Internet, see a reference to a breaking news story, and hit The New York Times for the straight story about it. If the Times isn't available to be read, they won't pay a subscription to read it -- they'll go to the Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune, or the Miami Herald, or wherever is most convenient. And they will go to news.google.com to get the pointer in question. All that putting a given paper behind a paywall will accomplish is a rerouting of that traffic to the free content available.

Until the day Publishers understand this basic principle, said so well above and expanded upon so clumsily by me, we will continue to have ridiculous wars between print and Internet journalists, cartoonists and all the rest. Those institutions that can innovate, monetize and produce will do okay in the emerging era. Those who can't will become smaller, niche organizations that ultimately will disappear or be consumed by their more successful brethren. If you don't believe me, ask the folks at the Britannica, which has been sold, split apart, rebranded, and retooled any number of times in an increasingly desperate attempt to remain in profit.

Or, if that's not enough, ask the folks at Microsoft Encarta. If, that is, you can get anyone to answer the phone -- which is unlikely, since they closed down entirely in October of this year -- all except the Japanese version, which closes on the last day of December this year.

I know this, for the record, because I read it on Wikipedia.

20 Comments

...yeah, pretty much.

Well said, gentleman from the Guardian comment thread, and well said, Mr. Burns. I will have to read the (no pay wall) Adam Tinworth blog later.

Thanks, Eric.

I love watching (living through) this evolution in how we get our information. If someone had told me 20 years ago (back when I was still scouring box scores and newspaper comics in BOTH Dallas daily papers -yes, Virginia there were 2, once) that not only could I read these same things, one day, on a computer, that I could take with me on the train; and not only that, there would be more (and better!) comics and more (and better!) box scores and they would be (mostly) free? I probably would have been so giddy with excitement, I'd have made a mess. And I was 15 then.

Old business models fade away and new ones replace them. It has always been such. Now, of course, it's happening so fast, to such a public industry, that the process is a lot more open and obvious. There will be a lot of sound and fury, some of it perhaps actually signifying Something. But, as always, those that won't evolve go away and those that do, survive (until it's their turn).

And, for the record, it's always good to see you writing.

I was more of an epee guy than a sabre guy, and it's been a few years…

…but thanks for the kind words. :-)

There's a bit of a problem with this, and it's the main reason Murdoch and his ilk are trying to firewall themselves off from the "free" Internet.

Simply put, very, very few enterprises have been able to make a profit on freely available content. The main example you give, Wikipedia, is not a for-profit entity. Britannica is- was- such a creature, and in fact represents source material for many of Wikipedia's entries.

Without the profit margin from which to pay people to do nothing but research and verify data, it's a practical impossibility to assemble, in one place, the kind of accurate information Britannica has. Wikipedia, though, by virtue of its convenience, is about to put all hardcopy encyclopedias out of business- which will, in turn, leave it without verifiable source material for its unpaid editors to use to justify deletions, edit wars, etc.

A couple weeks back I mentioned my five-category breakdown of the webcomics field as it stands: (5) read only by friends/family, (4) read but making no money, (3) making money but not enough to live from, (2) making enough money, just, to live from, and (1) Penny Arcade. The vast majority of (2) strips make that money not from advertising, not from voluntary payments, not even from sales of bonus-content memberships, but by sales of tangible goods- books, T-shirts, statues, artwork, etc. It is extremely rare for any content provider on the Internet to make significant money solely for providing content.

The Internet, with its almost-entirely-free content, may be destroying the print business model... but it might not replace the old model with any new model that works.

Which means, if we want news from any source not funded as an "educational" expense by a political movement, we may end up forced to convert PBS into an American version of the BBS. Unless someone comes up with a way to replace the old revenue stream with one just as large, subsidized news, research, and artwork might well be the only option.

Adam: So you would be behind "epee wall" then? :)

A major part of the reason why entities have had difficulty with making a profit off of free content is the very transitional nature of the current situation. Put simply, all the mechanisms for reaping profit are organized around the old systems, and they haven't transitioned as yet.

One thing is very clear, in terms of large, monolithic systems -- if eyes go to those places and not to the old way of doing things, then those places are going to be where advertisers and other revenue streams go.

At the same time, the sale of tangible goods with the website itself as the primary advertisement is indeed a perfectly legitimate revenue stream and business plan. I know one webcartoonist who just today closed on a new house, based on his webcomics revenue. Honestly, I have absolutely nothing against the idea of free content being an effective loss leader against a different revenue model. Nothing promises any of us will make money soon or ever. However, firewalling content won't keep Murdoch and his ilk in profit -- it will simply mean that the models that rise to the top won't include them.

There have been a ton of companies that have made a profit on the internet -- each and every one of them have centered on convenience first. Amazon puts everything in one location and then centralizes distribution. eBay provides a service and focuses on the efficient running of that service, so anyone can use it. Paypal makes monetary transactions simple and painless -- and as a side note suddenly makes the accepting of credit card transactions trivial. Google's posted advertising revenues are in the billions -- and Google provides simple, easy and convenient services that put those advertisements front and center. The road to profit is still bumpy, but it passes through convenience junction in essentially every successful case.

You are also underestimating the folks in '2' above. More and more there are webcartoonists who are not simply getting by but are actually having decent standards of living. Like I said -- when you have this many webcartoonists quitting their day jobs and still affording amenities like houses and Cintaq monitors.

Even in the situations where pay models do work, they work because the convenience factor outweighs the inconvenience of ponying up cash. Take porn. Suicidegirls and Slipshine alike do very well for themselves, but in both cases the individual monthly costs are low, paying is trivially simple and the pornographic bounty is tremendous. In both cases, it is very simple to see just what one gets for one's money, it is very simple to pay, and payment opens the doors for a significantly long time (and makes the sites about as transparent to access as free sites in the meantime.)

Cross compare that to the Britannica, which throws up things in the way of articles you're reading, with multi-step processes for both free and paid access and needlessly obfuscated instructions and results -- all of which comes up after you actually run a search for content. The same thing happens on a number of sites with paid archives. The natural reaction in all of those cases are 'screw this -- I'll go to X instead.'

You do have a point, but it doesn't overrule the core point of the essay: people aren't going to the web to read newspapers, they're going to the web (and the internet) as a thing in and of itself. Any model that relies upon people making extra effort and expense to see your content is ultimately going to fall prey to people who make their content easy to access. And as far as we still have to go to make all of this work, the one thing we know won't work is 'what worked before all this.'

It's worth noting that some media outlets are trying different ways of making money, too. The Washington Post, no less, is experimenting with inserting Amazon affiliate links in its articles even as it is closing its bureaus in major US cities.

Over on BoingBoing, Rob Beschizza blogs about why paywalls won't help most major newspapers. One points he makes is that, since paywalls reduce the number of readers you get, it also affects what you can charge for advertising. If what you make from your paywall does not surpass the ad revenue you lose, then you've just taken a net loss.

Put simply, all the mechanisms for reaping profit are organized around the old systems, and they haven't transitioned as yet.

I think the newspaper's real concern (And the RIAA, and Marvel, etc...) is that their particular "old system" cannot transition to the new medium.

And I think they have a right to be concerned. The same way not all stage/ silent film stars were able to transition into talkies back in the 1920s, not all print endeavors will be able to transition to pixels in the 2000s. A newspaper that did relatively fine in a small town because they fed a need will not do fine in the internet long tail because that need is being filled already.

I know a lot of new media types pretty much have a "tough shit" view on this, but there will not be ten thousand new, rent-paying news blogs popping up in the wake of the newspapers finally taking a dirt nap. What there will be are ten thousand unemployed men and women desperately looking for anything to keep food on the table.

You mention successful web businesses. But the money owned by the hump is concentrated in the hands of very few, Eric. The long tail is not going to be enough to help the large number of people who's job will not transition.

I'm one of those people who do read a newspaper from cover to cover (the Guardian, as it happens). When I do, I read a paper copy. I don't read it on-line even though it would be free.

I also read a lot of stuff on-line and never click through a pay-wall to do so.

On the subject of newspapers, the problem is that, with the Internet making the duplication of the same national news stories meaningless, any news organization is going to fail unless it does one of three things:

(1) Make a brand for itself as a primary source of non-local news;

(2) Provide superior local reporting that type (1) news outlets don't/won't provide; or

(3) Abandon the daily news cycle in favor of more in-depth and detailed study of news and issues, i. e. the newsmagazine format.

Note I do NOT include a fourth category- that is, unique content. In news terms, that's the scoop- getting a story nobody else has- and it's not something that can be done consistently.

As to the examples you gave: I believe the success of the pay models, when they succeed, is not due to convenience- ESPECIALLY with porn. Indeed, you have to do a bit of work to AVOID running into porn on the Internet, and there's tons available for free(ish). Pay models succeed when there is demand for a specific, scarce product- not merely for porn, but for one or more of Slipshine's artist's works, for example.

Lack of convenience will deter customers- this much is true- but convenience alone will not bring in customers.

(2) Provide superior local reporting that type (1) news outlets don't/won't provide;

Let me divert a moment and say this: I absolutely and truly hope this will be the case.

One of the things about the death of Newspapers that scares me the most is the erosion of strong local journalism. We need local journalism -- we need investigative journalists working on the local level rooting out corruption and all the rest. It's why the Constitution gives freedom of the press in the first place, and why so many governments at so many levels make the press out as their enemy -- scrutiny is necessary.

And CNN.com won't likely be good at telling me if my local alderman has gotten sweet sinecure jobs for half his extended family in the town roads and maintenance department, bleeding funds away from actual roads and maintenance....

I know a lot of new media types pretty much have a "tough shit" view on this, but there will not be ten thousand new, rent-paying news blogs popping up in the wake of the newspapers finally taking a dirt nap. What there will be are ten thousand unemployed men and women desperately looking for anything to keep food on the table.

You mention successful web businesses. But the money owned by the hump is concentrated in the hands of very few, Eric. The long tail is not going to be enough to help the large number of people who's job will not transition.

You're right.

And it is a bloody shame, and I wish it weren't so.

Do not mistake my assertions in my essay for being gleeful at the death of old media. The death of old media will be painful and will have wide ranging negative consequences on the personal, professional and societal levels.

However -- it is also inevitable. Companies that are saber-rattling now and asserting the need to pay for their content and building mechanisms to block such as Google from seeing it aren't preserving old media -- they're hastening their own deaths.

For good or ill, change has begun and we are seeing it run rampant. The deathwatch for newspapers is no longer contested by anyone credible. And eventually -- eventually -- things will evolve to replace old media's role. That is the glory of the marketplace. If there is a demand for content, someone will figure out a way to provide it at a profit.

Until that someone shows up, there is going to be trouble. And those who are desperately fighting the tide are not preparing for that trouble, they are ultimately making it worse.

Do not mistake my assertions in my essay for being gleeful at the death of old media.

Haha. Didn't mean to imply that you were. Though that seems to be the main tenor of the conversation. Web evangelicals are just as annoying as their real world counterparts, so their proselytizing tends to color everything.

And you're right, the death of their industry is inevitable. And neither offering quality nor offering convenience is going to save them. The web doesn't care about the former, and the latter is already being served.

We're in one of those cultural shifts now. Who knows how it's all going to wind up. I'm thinking the future will be a Techno Serfdom.

Kris, I'm not sure that I buy that Britannica is a major source for Wikipedia. I can't recall seeing it all that often, and hitting random page a few times didn't show it listed as a reference. Generally Wikipedians use more specific references; subject-specific encyclopedias and books on the topic. Having read Harvey Einbinder's "The Myth of the Britannica", I'm not horribly enamored of the "accuracy" of the Britannica.

I tend to agree. I think Britannica formed a part of Wikipedia's foundation back in the day -- used in much the same way as the prudent researcher uses Wikipedia today: as a launching point for primary and secondary source research. To be perfectly honest, the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia would at most make Britannica's Micropaedia or not make the Britannica at all -- which is one reason people turn to Wikipedia first.

Interesting. I have to wonder whether if it's more the biggest papers that need to worry, though. I don't buy the main paper here because I can read it for free at work, but I do read it to keep up with what's been going on in the area in general. If I want specific/right-now info I usually go to the Stuff website (combines most main NZ papers plus immediate reporting - don't know how it's funded), in part because it has people's responses to the news as well. We've got a couple of free local papers too (category 2?) funded by ads, and unless they start up websites that sort of news won't appear on the internet at all.

Mind, I live in a country with around 4.5 million people total, so the level of potential readers is probably a lot less than the actual numbers for the major US papers, but as far as I know almost every city/town/village/tourist trap has at least one local paper (whether paid or free). Suburbs have their own papers. Rural communities with less than 100 people have their own papers (okay, newsletter). Maybe it's just a function of limited internet access, but are you really saying that all of those are going to disappear?

I suspect that the death of newspapers isn't quite as near as people think. Some papers, yes, but all of them?

It's true that Britannica formed the foundation of Wikipedia. In fact, some of the first articles were copied in whole from old editions whose text had become public domain. Obviously those articles are outdated on a large majority of subjects and so have been rewritten. You can still find a couple of articles that claim they are from Britannica here and there.

For what it's worth, your RSS feed regurgitated this article to me only a couple of days after the Webcomics.com debacle, which makes this argument feel almost... psychic in pointing out the obvious flaws in their new paywall scheme.

Kudos.

Yeah, when we repaired and reworked some of the issues yesterday and today, it refreshed the RSS feed and people got new and exciting bits of it.

Also... holy crap, we can reply to peoples' comments now?

...er... I mean... check out our new 'reply' feature in the comments, now!

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