Just read an article about the Sunday Times (A UK newspaper) justifying its paywall. The link to the article doing said justifying is of course behind the paywall, but you can find another link here (put up by the original author, I believe; remember this for later): http://www.dianestormont.com/jmscbackup/?p=229
The driving argument is this: good journalism costs money. Barring the celebrity crap, it costs time for research and digging and it costs money for airfare and other such expenses.
In truth, I hadn’t thought about that part much. I agree. It makes sense.
But nothing is ever that easy or cut-and-dry. If I start paying for news, what assurance do I have that more journalists will be hired? Or that existing ones will get a raise? or that Mr/Mrs. journalist ABC will finally get an expense check to cover the digging s/he’s doing? How do I know that that money just isn’t going toward the CEO’s bonus check or to the board of directors or whatever sort of structure sits at the top? Look at the owners of some of our newspapers and news organizations and you see money.
So it’s not just about quality journalism. It’s about money, too. It’s a business.
And that’s where the waters get muddy. Furthermore, what about the incestuous nature of online news these days? With stuff like the Associated Press, RSS syndication and suchlike, many news organizations don’t even write or originate the news they write about in the first place. So you want me to pay you to read what other people worked on? Why should I bother paying a local paper when I can pay for the Chronicle or the NYT or some bigger paper with more pull (local news is likely available elsewhere)? Why should I pay the Chronicle or the NYT when maybe I can pay the Associated Press and get my news from the source?
How about the ads that many newspapers show? One large criteria I’d have for whether I paid or not would be the assurance that they would no longer appear.
Another problem is of course the paywall itself. When I went to read the original article, I wasn’t even allowed to read a snippet or a summary: instead, to get my “free preview”, they requested I sign up and log in. Just for the preview. In addition, the paywall makes it difficult to handle any kind of discussion or openness about the information contained in the article itself. If I want to link my friend to a really awesome piece, I can’t. Not unless they subscribe.
So what do I do? Likely I copy and paste the article for them. Or print it out.
So I can’t help but draw paralells between DRM controls and paywalls-as-DRM. I just don’t think it will work. People will just circumvent the restriction. Remeber the opening paragraph, where the article author himself reposted the content somewhere else so that people could read it? News versus money. Right there.
Plus, I see the emergence of aggregator services that take that behind-the-paywall stuff, aggregate it together, and then charge people for reading it. It’s not much of a longshot, especially inside of niche areas like business or tech. How do you slice up that journalistic pie?
These are the more concrete issues. I haven’t even touched on the whole bit of how do you innovate and foster open exchange when everything is locked behind an account and a credit card? The stickier, bigger-picture images come down to news versus money and which has priority, and I don’t think the world in general is ready to answer that yet.
Like books, music, and other content, I’ll gladly pay for quality. but I need to know where my money is going and that my money is directly related to the quality that I receive. I need to know where it goes. An example: there’s plenty of free fiction available online. It spans the quality spectrum from terrible to publish-able quality. But if I buy a book, I know where my money is going (author, publisher [who pays editors, artists, etc]) and I can expect a generic level of quality (such as basic editing, minimal formatting errors, etc). But with fiction, the act of handing over money does NOT guarantee quality writing or storytelling, just as handing over money won’t automatically increase the quality of journalism that results.
Perhaps a microtransaction model would be better than a subscription model. For instance: I find an interesting article to read, I sign in to my 3rd party account and authorize a transaction for 5 cents or 25 cents or whatever it would be, and then I get access to that article. It would then behoove that news organization (and all the others) to make snippets available for free without registration in the hopes of enticing me to click-and-pay for another article.
These paywalls and the discussions that result from them are an important step, but we still have a long way to go.