Within minutes of the email and website announcement of the NYT paywall details, Twitter was all aflutter.
Cory Doctorow made his rote attack against all things not free and open to the public. His basic argument is, this paywall is flawed as a way to keep freeloaders out of their content. It will piss people off, and people will stop linking to the Times because they won’t want to, by extension, piss of their readers.
The other general negative sentiment is that the site will hemorrhage traffic, lose ad revenue, etc. This may all be correct, but I’d wager, and the Times is wagering big time, that none of that matters.
I suspect those at the helm figured, we have a few important things going for us: First, a massive part of what people read and share on the Internet comes from us, at our great expense. Second, well-to-do people have and will pay handsomely for our content. Third, those same people increasingly don’t want the greasy grey paper that is attached to that content.
This paywall is less a paywall and more of a way to corral those people who live and die by the Times, and want access anyway they need it, at their fingertips daily. As it is, those people are either paying for the print edition and still using online heavily, or they are lost in the ocean with casual users.
Marco Arment, a smarter man than I on such matters, wondered why they wouldn’t just do a flat 5 bucks a month for all content. But in a way, it’s closer to the NPR pledge system than it is to what most consider a paywall. That’s where Doctorow is wrong. The Times isn’t trying to shut people out or stop freeloading.
It’s offering a firm nudge to the readers who are willing to pay (because those who aren’t can get around it if they are willing to dance a little), readers who use heavily (because you can access plenty without the wall dropping), and finding a way to skim a hefty revenue stream off of that top tier of consumers.
History shows only a few percent of free users will convert to paid users. What the Times is trying to do is somehow locate and charge only those users.
People who value good content will pay for it. They’ll buy the vinyl. The Times is trying to find the vinyl buyers and rake in a huge chunk of cash that will, hopefully, pay to keep the content coming.
They have to find that sweet spot of skimming money from the top, and not shutting down casual traffic, and along with it their massive influence on general chatter in the world.
But it’s in everyone’s best interests that the Times, one of the few shops out there that can still afford to experiment, figures out how to get Internet use to pay for news generation. Ads aren’t going to cut it, and the HuffPo model of not paying for reporting is, well, shit you’ve read HuffPo.
If the New York Times can’t figure it out, American journalism will go the way of the record companies.