The upcoming paywall at The Times has claimed its first victim as one of its legal bloggers, BabyBarista, departed the paper to set up independently in order not to be cut off from the network of links, contacts and readers which the blog has created. Having waved a fond goodbye, barrister Tim Kevan then pronounced that the paywall will be a “disaster”. That post also contains links to those who agree with him and that list happens to make a very good guided tour of the opinions on one side of the argument.
Note two things. First the glee with which this breach in the wall is being greeted by those who have declared, in advance of the results coming in, that the experiment with paywalls will fail. This is premature in more than one way.
The judgement about The Times wall can’t be made for months. We need to know about revenue, subscriber churn, the kinds of usage the site is getting and whether ads are being sold on the new sites – to name only a few of things we probably won’t get told about. And paywall experiments will differ: if the one at The Times fails, that doesn’t mean that others (e.g. the upcoming one at the New York Times) will crash. Lastly, one defecting blogger doesn’t unravel a whole newspaper.
Second and more important, see how the ground of debate is shifting away from economics towards links. Paywall experiments are about making money from content. But the biggest difficulties they face haven’t been financial; they’ve been creative. Writers like being linked. They want reactions, tips, comments and, above all, recognition. Anything which shrinks those possibilities goes against the grain and against their interests.
When the New York Times went behind a paywall, the financial results weren’t sparkling. But what finished off that tryout was the rebellion by the paper’s commentators, who found that people couldn’t be bothered to find them behind the wall and stopped reading. The writers could link outwards but links in to them became hassles consuming time and money. Controversies and debates withered.
As I’ve written before, the really remarkable aspect of The Times/Sunday Times move is the completeness of the exclusion zone: all the material is behind the wall when it is sealed in a month’s time. No free bits, tasters or teasers are going to be allowed outside to tempt people in. This suggests to me that the fate of the whole scheme is more likely to turn on the experience of the paper’s bloggers than on the economics of subscription income.
Danny Finkelstein, now Executive Editor of The Times and founding author of the very successful Comment Central politics blog, said at the launch last week that he wasn’t afraid of running his blog from behind a paywall. Here’s Finkelstein squaring up to Mike Masnick of Techdirt. Georgebrock.net will check on how things are for Comment Central in a few months’ time.
Watch the health of Times blogs like Le Blogue (as it doesn’t seem to be called any more) by Charles Bremner from Paris. This blog, by a immensely knowledgeable correspondent, has achieved the feat of a big following among French readers. Will those followers be faithful enough to pay the subscriptions?
Links (or what is portentously known as “the link economy”) aren’t universally admired: they can be distracting and there’s a hint in this piece that people learn less from link-heavy material. I still believe that that a way not yet invented will be found round the central dilemma of finding a financial base for journalism while allowing writers to connect to as wide a community as possible. But unless and until that happens, the outcome of the experiment just starting will turn on the reactions of a group of writers who are about to communicate with a smaller fan base.
(Regular disclosure: I worked for The Times 1981-2009.)