Clay Shirky, a leading paywall skeptic, deserves credit for grappling with what is now generally conceded to be the clear success of The New York Times’s digital pay model.
Shirky makes the counterintuitive argument that NYT’s success, coupled with the supposed failure of the Times of London own paywall, “are a blow to the idea that online news can be treated as a simple product for sale, as the physical newspaper was.”, He argues that the failure of the London paper’s rigid paywall (no free stories; readers have to pay to see anything) shows that selling online news is not a “simple product” transaction.
Further, he argues that even a successful leaky paywall (readers get to see some stories but pay for unlimited access) will push newspapers like the NYT to focus on the niche interests of its subscribers at the expense of its mass readership.
He makes some interesting points, once they are translated, but what stands out immediately is that a leading future of news (FON) thinker, faced with evidence contradicting a cornerstone of the theory—that people won’t pay for news online—is still working to show that even when people are paying for news online they aren’t, well, you know.
Can we agree, at least theoretically, that when people do pay for news online, that that would be a good thing? It’s okay to disagree, but it seems to me the FON side of the debate needs to clarify its position on the matter: Is charging for journalism merely impractical or is it wholly undesirable?
Starting with the Times of London’s paywall, Shirky presents it as a flat failure and proof that online news payments are not “simple product” transactions.
One early sign of this shift was the 2010 launch of paywalls for the London Times and Sunday Times. These involved no new strategy; however, the newspaper world was finally willing to regard them as real test of whether general-interest papers could induce a critical mass of readers to pay. (Nope.)
Much as I think the Times of London went wrong installing a rigid paywall rather than a leaky one, to judge its merits fairly we need to look at better data than Shirky gives us via a speculative story written a year and a half ago, three weeks after the paper put up its paywall. That story reported that the Times’s web visitors plummeted 90 percent after the paywall and guessed that it had just 15,000 online subscribers.
More recent reports have said that Times traffic in the UK, the audience most of its advertisers want to reach, was actually down 42 percent (lots of people still visit the home page, apparently). And in October, News Corp. said that the Times of London now has more than 111,000 paying digital subscribers, up 41 percent in six months. I might not call that “critical mass,” and we don’t have ad numbers, but it’s nothing to scoff at for a paper with the daily print circulation of The Arizona Republic.
While the Times of London case is more nuanced than Shirky would have us believe, I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether even a total failure would show that buying news online is not a simple transaction.
Now anti-paywallists are presented with a harder case, a bigger “problem,” if you will: The New York Times.
Here, Shirky argues that readers in that case are paying $16 a month not because they necessarily want or need journalism, but because they want to support the journalistic cause:
When a paper abandons the standard paywall strategy, it gives up on selling news as a simple transaction. Instead, it must also appeal to its readers’ non-financial and non-transactional motivations: loyalty, gratitude, dedication to the mission, a sense of identification with the paper, an urge to preserve it as an institution rather than a business.
Shirky argues that, like donors contributing to NPR, New York Times subscribers pay $16 a month out of a sense of civic obligation (“support the cause”) rather than as an exchange of value (“you’ve got what I want and I’ll pay you for it.”)