Since Rupert Murdoch announced his plans to eventually charge for all of his newspapers' online content, a number of opinions have surfaced about the feasibility of the pay wall and the reasons it won't work.
For example, a MediaPost item by Wendy Davis (free subscription required) suggests that enough people who pay for the content will share it in violation of the publisher's terms that the content will get out anyway. Others note that for every news site with a pay wall there will be plenty of alternatives that remain free.
From my perspective, the issue isn't about whether the online content offered by news organizations have any value. Clearly it does, despite all the hand-wringing over "content wants to be free." (Stewart Brand, remember, said in the same breath that "content wants to be expensive.") It's more about the discoverability of the content and the value per article.
The primary difference between the content news organizations publish on the web and that which they publish anywhere elseâ€"even if it's just a repurposing of the same contentâ€"is the difference between pull and push. And once you understand that, you understand that it's all about the package.
Non-web contentâ€"whether it's in print, on TV or aggregated in an emailâ€"is pushed at you in a package. I subscribe to The Contra Costa Times. It shows up on my driveway every morning, held together by a rubber band. The newspaper has sectionsâ€"Sports, Business, Time Out, Morning Reportâ€"each one with articles and features that I discover as I methodically turn the pages. I'm not paying for one columnist or one type of story or one set of box scores. I'm paying for the package.
Nobody subscribes to The New York Times just to get David Pogue's column. (Well, maybe his mom.) Pogue's column is one of the features you look forward to when you consume the Times.
The same is true of news on TV. It starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 7:30 on the major networks, beginning with the top news and moving through features and commentary. On cable, there's also a collection of stories contained in the package. If the most interesting item on "Countdown" is the story that starts at 5:40, you just have to wait 40 minutes to get through it (which is fine since the stories preceding it are probably of interest to you, too).
With the pull dynamic of the web, things don't work that way; the package is so much less important that it's a non-factor. Too many people ignore the front page of the newspaper website, opting instead to make Google News or Digg or their RSS aggregator or Twitter's trending topics their front page. Or they see a link tweeted by someone notifying their followers of an intriguing news story.
Or, you like just the David Pogue column; it's the sole reason you visit The New York Times site.
In any case, it's the individual items that attract attention.
(On a side note, it's truly a scary thought that the pay wall will block individual news items from being collected in these third-party channels, isn't it? How counterintuitive would it be for the only way to find that the story exists at all is to pay your admission fee and slog through all the links on a newspaper site's home page?)
So I find a link to a story through any of the 10 or 15 channels I use, click to it and discover that a subscription is required. Will I pony up $9.95 per month for every one of the 20 to 30 news sites I wind up visiting? Not likely. I'm not interested in accessing the whole site. I just want the one story, the one column, the one feature that brought me there in the first place. And I'll skip it before I subscribe.
After all, I only get The Contra Costa Times in print. I don't pay for subscriptions to 15 or 20 other newspapers. It befuddles me that Murdoch and other publishers think we use the web the same way we use print.
That's not to say I wouldn't pay for access to news content, but the news business needs to introduce a new model that just doesn't exist yet. I'd gladly pay $9.95 per month for access to any news content, with some kind of collection agencyâ€"a kind of ASCAP for news organizationsâ€"divvying up the proceeds and distributing them to publishers using a formula based on the volume of visits to each of their sites.
Given the results of the recent VSS media study, which shows people are spending more time than ever with paid content, I think an approach like this could work.
But as long as each publication plans to assess a discrete subscription fee to gain access to any of their content, this plan will fail. It has nothing to do with whether the publishers deserve compensation, or whether the content has value. It simply has to do with finding a model consistent with the way people use the content. A monthly per-publication subscription fee isn't it.