Audit Notes: The paywall problem, Thatcherism, Googlebots

Keeping out the youth of America

Alan Mutter has this to say about the pitfalls of paywalls:

The case for paywalls would seem to be compelling: Stanch the decline in print circulation, get paid for producing valuable local content and tap into a fresh source of sorely needed revenue at a time advertising sales continue to shrink.

All good? Not necessarily. The reason to worry about paywalls is that they severely limit the prospects of developing a wider audience for newspapers at a time publishers need - more than ever - to attract readers among the digitally native generations that represent a growing proportion of the adult population.

Yes, clearly that’s a problem. But it’s one you can’t solve if you’re out of business, which is why paywalls are required to help stop the bleeding and why their 15-year absence was indeed the newspaper industry’s original digital sin, as Mutter himself once put it.

And it’s also a problem that’s mitigated by the metered paywall, which is what almost all newspapers are implementing (the major exceptions being The Times of London and now The Orange County Register). The downsides are heavily outweighed by the upsides.

There’s no apparent future for newspapers online supported primarily by digital ads. If you can find a way to do it or you come across a newfangled non-subscription revenue stream, then great! But we’re already nearly two decades into newspapers’ Web era.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy has a useful look at the pros and cons of Margaret Thatcher’s policies:

In 1979, output per employee in German manufacturing was almost twenty per cent higher than in British manufacturing. A decade later, the gap had been reduced to five per cent. Progress was also made in the fast-growing services sector. In a survey of productivity growth in twenty countries carried out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain ranked twelfth in the period from 1960 to 1973. Between 1979 and 1994, it ranked fifth. To be sure, dear old Blighty was still no world-beater. Compared to the United States and Japan, for example, it was still lagging badly in manufacturing productivity. But it was no longer the “sick man” of Europe—by 2007, output per head in the over-all economy had reached German levels—and that’s the case for Thatcherite shock therapy.

Perhaps the most visible cost of Thatcherism was mass unemployment, which remained a blight on the country well after she left office. Between 1955 and 1979, the unemployment rate in the U.K. averaged 3.3 per cent. Between 1980 and 1995, it averaged 9.7 per cent. And these figures don’t take account of millions of Britons who dropped out of the labor force to take disability benefits or enter the underground economy. For the first time since the nineteen thirties, chronic joblessness returned, and with it came a big increase in poverty. A helpful chart on the Guardian’s Web site shows the trend. If the poverty line is set at sixty per cent of median income, in 1979 13.4 per cent of households lived under it. By 1990, Mrs. Thatcher’s last year in power, the rate had shot up to 22.2 per cent.

— Google’s ultimate intentions are too little talked about, believe it or not.

You’ve got a couple of guys with $23 billion apiece sitting on top of the most sensitive personal-information hoard ever assembled. One of them, at least, clearly wants to be a cyborg, living as he apparently does now with a computer attached to his head. They named their operating system Android.

Fortunately nowadays we have Evgeny Morozov to question, sharply, where these powerful people want us to go. He writes in the Financial Times about the dangers of an all-knowing Google:

Let’s give credit where it is due: Google is not hiding its revolutionary ambitions. As its co-founder Larry Page put it in 2004, eventually its search function “will be included in people’s brains” so that “when you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information”…
Thus, when last year Google announced its privacy policy, which would bring the data collected through its more than 60 online services under one roof, the move made business sense. The obvious reason for doing so is to make individual user profiles even more appealing to advertisers: when Google tracks you it can predict what ads to serve you much better than when it tracks you only across one such service.

But there is another reason, of course - and it has to do with the Grand Implant Agenda: the more Google knows about us, the easier it can make predictions about what we want - or will want in the near future. Google Now, the company’s latest offering, is meant to do just that: by tracking our every email, appointment and social networking activity, it can predict where we need to be, when, and with whom. Perhaps, it might even order a car to drive us there - the whole point is to relieve us of active decision-making. The implant future is already here - it’s just not evenly resisted.

You may think “Grand Implant Agenda” is outlandish, but then again you probably wouldn’t think a billionare would show up to a press conference with the governor of California looking like this:

(photo via the AP)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,