The news that Fairfax Media is moving the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age behind a paywall after you read more than 10 free articles a month is interesting. That’s because I frequently visit the SMH.com.au website for the business section and investigate reporting by the likes of Kate McClymont.
What I find interesting is that the application of a paywall to marginal content isn’t a recipe for saving the newspaper industry. Paywalls only work for valuable content. Now, there are many reasons that content can be valuable – NBR can charge for subscription because it has a captive audience, it’s not like NZ business news would be profitable for the WSJ or FT to cover.
Another reason content can justify a paywall is that it’s really good stuff – top reporting, different perspectives or something that isn’t available elsewhere. Of course, only old people buy physical newspapers. They give the Dom Post away for free at Victoria University but I doubt they’re ever going to get a print subscription from anyone other than journalists’ family members.
I am happy to pay for content that is valuable and I can legally access in New Zealand. Content producers that have a functioning brain realise this, and I regularly buy books from Amazon’s Kindle Store or books self-published from bloggers I follow.
But there’s no way I’d value my occasional visits to SMH.com.au to justify a subscription price that would only increase over time. In the cut throat world of online advertising, unless you’re selling sponsored posts like The Atlantic’s Quartz.com, the trend for cost per million impressions is down. There is an ever increasing supply of advertising space, ruthless competition for viewer attention and a plethora of over-complicated strategies pushed by ad agencies who couldn’t tell the different between a click and a clique.
They might think they understand digital media, but they don’t. There is a generational shift in willingness to pay. Journalism is not valuable in and of itself – repackaging press releases doesn’t add much value. When everyone can blog, how much is an opinion columnist really worth?
I think the way to think about free content is as a loss leader for other more profitable content. The Fairfax sites have probably driven marginal purchases of the physical paper when big news events happen, but the cost of having a newsroom operation that isn’t 100% obsessed with efficiency is that layoffs are inevitable.
When you read interesting articles, where does the most valuable comment come from? It’s hardly ever from the journalists themselves. It’s from the person on the scene, the industry commentator, the economist, the politician.
They still haven’t clicked that there’s nothing noble about journalism. It’s just another job that’s getting globalised and digitised and that sucks for journalists. But knee-jerk reactions like putting low value content behind a paywall will only harm journalism in the long run.
It has to be explained carefully to people who think the future of media matters – most people care about their Facebook newsfeeds and how many likes they get on an Instagram pic more than what is happening in the world.
In fact, being well informed and reading widely makes you an outlier in the modern world. Just look at the clickbait of BuzzFeed Business and BusinessInsider – in order to keep their business model alive they have to confuse people who aren’t interested in business to somehow boost their user impressions.
Even WonkBlog at the Washington Post has deteriorated into posting videos of cute cats and other irrelevant, stupid, internet generation demanded trivia.
I think media executives have some sort of dream like “If we put everything behind the paywall, we’ll stop the bleeding and bring back quality journalism!”. It’s insane – attention is valuable and news doesn’t matter anymore. Just look how useless the mainstream media have been with their coverage of pretty much everything important that’s happened in the past decade.