First, Tim Rutten makes the case that saving “premium” journalism means an act of Congress — specifically, an antitrust exemption so papers can collude on paid content pricing on their Web sites. Then, the reaction.
Steve Outing, for example:
“He's joking, right? U.S. newspapers, many with a history of profit margins in the 20-30% range for many years, suddenly should be allowed to collude because they've had a rough couple years? That's outrageous. The marketplace and disruptive technologies are forcing newspapers to change or die. So they have to change, reinvent themselves for the digital age. Let’s keep government out of this, unless it's in more useful ways such as supporting the expansion of broadband to all, giving media players large and small a level playing field.”
And from Michael Masnick at Techdirt:
“It's difficult to think of anything to say to people who think these ways, other than “good luck.” The real world doesn't believe in such limitations. If the newspapers collude and come up with a pricing scheme where the lowest option starts at $10 per month — fine. Just go do it, and then let's see what happens. Because talking about it is getting pretty silly.”
Masnick predicts “smart” news organizations, and/or individuals, would break off from a colluding pack and soak up the traffic it sheds.
As someone who spent most of the last 15 years pulling newspaper companies into the digital age, I do not always agree with people who presume our industry cannot and does not innovate. It can. It does. Newspapers' best digital properties, you gotta admit, are pretty good, pretty competitive. The ranges of size, of best and worst, and of experimentation out there, all run very wide. I doubt the whole industry would move lockstep in any direction, especially toward digital paywalls.
Pay walls amount to a business decision: choosing your market. Newspaper publishers who put Web content behind pay walls choose to exit the advertiser-supported market for content, and battle instead in the consumer-supported market.
Can't you do both? No, apparently. Every example I see of erecting pay walls so diminishes traffic vs. market potential that advertising becomes, at best, a second revenue stream behind subscription fees. (That may not be true of WSJ.com, but not all WSJ content stays behind the wall.)
Meanwhile, the major search engines might still crawl and index your pay wall site, which you'd think would help. But they'll insist you provide their consumer searchers at least the first page free when they click through. That adds complexity to your technology model while diminishing your subscriber base in exchange for trickles of drive-by traffic.
In cases where Web proprietors start with content behind a pay wall and later decide to set it free, new advertising revenue quickly outpaces the old pay wall revenue because traffic grows that much.
Where are the news pay wall success stories that would inspire confidence in the consumer-supported market?