Shirky, paywalls and newsletters

Intriguing suggestion here by Clay Shirky, analysing the opaque numbers issued for the websites of The Times and Sunday Times: that a paywall for a general interest paper can only work on the “newsletter” model of privately circulated content to a small, fee-paying readership. In other words, charging can only succeed by altering the nature of the publication.

Shirky makes the powerful point (and he’s made it before) that the web decisively disrupts the continuity of well-known titles and brands in news.

One of the problems for the printed press is the fall in the value that people think newspapers have. Perhaps the most powerful driver of that decline is the simple ability now given to the reader to compare. Before the web, only working journalists sat down each day to compare the relative performance of a competitive set of news outlets; it was part of the job. Now anyone can do this on the web, using any basis of comparison they choose. The lack of relative orginality and the commodity nature of much news, particularly in an era when editorial resources have been thinned out, is far more obvious to all.

It’s beginning to dawn on newspapers that they can only respond to this by thinking the unthinkable. Even if a newspaper decides to make separate pieces of its output special “micro-brands” and to ask readers to pay, this involves restructuring to concentrate on these new outlets. And it may not be easy to locate or form a paying community which appreciates what a paper thinks is a key strength (“comment”, say). Specialist and niche websites will already be in those spaces and they may not be easy to dislodge.

But if a general paper does not split and morph into several of its constituent parts on the web, does it inevitably become a newsletter, as Shirky argues? The small subscriber number (around 50,000) revealed the other day suggests that this fate could only be avoided by a huge marketing spend or perhaps by bundling Times subscriptions with satellite TV packages. The latter is precisely what opponents of the News Corp bid for 100% of the shares in Sky TV say they fear: the ability to bundle charges for print, web and TV.

Supposing that the marketing spend isn’t available or the Sky deal doesn’t go through or bundling doesn’t look worthwhile. If The Times/Sunday Times numbers remain stuck in low figures, there are only two options. Reverse right out of the paywall and return the money. Or hope that someone invents something more technically sophisticated which allows charging to be combined with better ways to seduce the reader into consuming the journalism. (Next experiment in that line: the New York Times).

But, paywall or none, the underlying the issue for newspapers remains the lowered perception of value.

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1 comment

  1. Great insight, George (as ever). Shirky makes valid points about The Times cutting itself off entirely from the ecosystem of traded links, before hitting the paywall (the other heavyweight NewsCorp title, the WSJ allows at least click-through and summaries before you hit any barriers).

    But I think he and many paywall commentators are missing something. They point to the plummeting numbers and suppose there is little value in those that remain. How many of those lost figures were non-UK? If The Times loses those, does it mean it has surrendered its role as an influential voice, as Emily Bell suggests?

    News may be playing the much longer game here: think of Kelly’s “1000 True Fans” argument. Extrapolate that to a corporate media scale, then add the marketing/advertising principle that niche pays better than mass; i.e. that an advertiser will pay a premium to reach the people that are most likely to buy their products. Up goes the cpm yield and you are no longer entirely so dependent on the subscription fees.

    Value shifts to those who can prove a loyal and regular following. Perhaps this is the market that The Times is aiming for as it carves up its “added-value” content to the believers in whatever format they want it: iPad, mobile, eReader, etc. Watching with interest, from afar.