Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Media executives, analysts continue the paywall debate

While we in the U.S. are waiting for the New York Times to launch its own version of a metered paywall, Rupert Murdoch's The Times in the UK has been behind a paywall now for a few months and will most likely brag about their results in today's earning conference call.

Has The Times paywall proved to be a success? I don't know, it's all a matter of perspective, I think. The company line, of course, is that things are going swimmingly: “These figures very clearly show that large numbers of people are willing to pay for quality journalism in digital formats,” according to News International chief Rebekah Wade.

Jeff Bercovici, writing for Forbes, that the "large" numbers being discussed are "just a tiny sliver of the 20 million monthly unique visitors the Times was attracting before the paywall’s advent. News Corp. can put a brave face on it . . . but unless the conversion rate goes way, way up, it’s hard to see how the company comes out ahead in the bargain."
Not surprisingly, neither the Independent nor the Guardian are writing positively about The Times paywall -- both having bet on an open web strategy.

"Faced with a collapse in traffic to, some advertisers have simply abandoned the site," Ian Burrell wrote on The Independent's website when the paywall first went up.

Exactly two months later, Burrell hasn't changed his mind. "The verdict, according to industry feedback I’m receiving this morning, is a thumbs down," Burrell wrote today.

Robert Andrews, writing for the Guardian owned site paidContent, says that "just 0.25 percent of The Times’ online audience have become regular customers," and then does a pretty good job of explaining News Corps's rationale.

As a matter of strategy, one imagines that many newspapers have made their decisions with a certain bias that comes from the background of the decision makers. Editors like to believe that editorial content should be of value, and therefore, should not be given away free.

New Media professionals generally believe the web is a free access medium and putting a price tag at the door is counter to the nature of the medium. Advertising people believe that reaching as many eyes as possible is the goal, something that can be sold.

I sympathize with all these points of view, but come at things a bit differently. How does the publisher feel about their ad sales organization? Most have little confidence with their ad teams, having seen the actual numbers being produced since the web became almost de rigueur. But most sales teams are still organized as if it were still the eighties -- classified teams being cut down to size to reflect lower volume, but few other changes other than a few experiments with web-only sales teams.

The goal remains the same as it always was: monetize web efforts. Because of this, I think we are still at an early stage of experimenting with paywalls. I believe it is a proven fact that paywalls work when the product is financial in nature. If gainly access to information makes me money I am willing to pay for it. But gaining access to the latest football score is not worth me paying a high price -- and besides, that information is easily accessed elsewhere. So for most newspapers, a paywall is an iffy proposition.

One last point, the fact that we see very few paywalls in B2B media is a sure sign that most trade publishing executives realize that they have degraded their editorial content to such a degree that it is virtually worthless. (As an example, the place holder put up by the editorial team at Construction Equipment did not mince words: send us your press releases. Now they have a new website up -- a place where press releases go to die.)

Where editorial content has no value, drawing advertising ends up being the goal. But without quality editorial, it is impossible to drive page views. So website become places where advertisers get spiffed for their print ad pages -- a horrible circle that leads nowhere.