A shorter version of this post originally appeared in last Thursday’s edition of Edmonton’s See Magazine.
Say goodbye to the New York Times.
Take this any way you want. Since the Times has decided to erect a “paywall” around its unique and precious content, lots of readers will have to say goodbye to the paper’s copy. For one reason or another, perhaps because their only access is through a public library terminal, they just won’t get to go there any more.
No matter from the Times’s perspective – those readers are mostly poor and their loss won’t make much difference to a fat old bottom line.
But there are literally millions more like me, who won’t pay a dime to read anything on the Internet.
Many of us are not particularly worried about on-line data security any more, so we’ll pay over the Internet for tangible goods or meaningful services. So, for example, we’ll buy stuff on eBay, use an on-line service for domain names or purchase software.
But pay for newspaper copy, even from a good newspaper? It’s just not going to happen.
This reality, the New York Times is going to find, is going to make a difference to its bottom line, and not in a good way.
The Times’s St. Paddy’s Day announcement that it was putting a paywall around its material – starting in Canada, in the great American business tradition of screwing their Canadian customers the firstest and the mostest – is only the latest chapter in the tragicomic story of desperate newspaper publishers trying to think of ways to wring profit from the Internet.
As the Times reported back in 2009, “media companies of all stripes built their business models on the assumption that advertising would continue to pour into their coffers. But with advertising in a tailspin, they now must shrink, shut down or find some way to shift more of the cost burden to consumers … who have so blissfully become accustomed to web content that costs nothing.” (You’ll get no link to this story from here, unfortunately for the Times’s advertisers. It’s just too inconvenient for readers, secure, as it’s supposed to be, behind the Times’s paywall.)
Alas for those media companies, many readers have realized they pay quite enough for Internet service, thanks very much, and there’s plenty to read for free. The likes of the BBC and Al Jazeera, for example, won’t be erecting paywalls for their own reasons, so guess where readers will go! New groups – churches, labour federations and businesses – may start offering news to attract readers to other messages.
The Times tried a paywall in 2007, and it didn’t work well then, either. The paper’s paywall, it turned out, wasn’t that hard to breach, courtesy of helpful bloggers who reprinted articles and blog search engines like Technorati.
The new paywall is full of holes too, at least for now. The principal loophole that the Times was willing to talk about in the runup to Paywall Day was that readers, able to read 20 stories a month for free, wouldn’t have to pay if they link to additional stories via Google, instead of going straight to the paper’s home page.
But it turns out there’s an even bigger loophole, big enough to drive through in a Mac truck loaded with newsprint. The Times’s paywall turns out to be ludicrously easy to circumvent – so easy, in fact, it’d be no fun if I told you! It’s obvious, however, that the brainiacs behind the Times’s paywall are counting on computer users not to know the most basic things about how their own Web browsers work.
For readers who do pay, the price is steep: $15 for four weeks, or $195 a year. Your iPad app will count toward your 20 stories, too.
On-line advertisers who pay for click-throughs from Times stories will be horrified to learn the impact this will have on how many people see their ads. They’ll flee to publications without paywalls. Those that advertise on iPad apps will find many users just delete the Times app. Because the paywall will interfere with links to Times stories, even more revenue will disappear.
Since the Times makes $300 million US a year from digital ads, Wired Magazine predicts losses will overwhelm the wall’s $24-million potential yearly revenue, never mind its $40-million development cost.
The World Wide Web enhanced and amplified the influence of newspaper proprietors enormously – especially for the Times as the world’s newspaper of record. Unfortunately, it also ruined the business model that created huge profits for more than a century.
While the Times’s editors may think they’re had the greatest publishing idea since Gutenberg, nobody but a few bazillionaires will pay what they hope, especially since climbing over the paywall presents only a mildly interesting challenge.
In time, when the paywall results in serious on-line advertising revenue deterioration, the Times’s owners will have to rethink their decision. They may give up, or they may make the Times even tougher to access.
Either way, they will have lost their pre-eminent position as the world’s most important newspaper. And who will care?
The world is about to tell the New York Times to drop dead.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.