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July 09 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Time’s non-pay paywall, free vs. pay in Britain and what to do with content farms

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A Time quasi-paywall discovered: Thanks to some collaborative online sleuthing — OK, basically just wandering around on a website and asking some simple questions — we found out that Time magazine is planning an online paywall. Reuters’ Felix Salmon ran into the wall first a few weeks ago, but saw that it had disappeared by the next day. Then on Tuesday, the Lab’s Joshua Benton noticed it again, pointing out that this was an odd kind of paywall — one without any sort of way to pay online (“a paywall without a door,” in his words).

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka got word the next day that the paywall is part of a company-wide strategy at Time Inc. to separate its print and iPad content from its online material. The Lab found out that Time does indeed have a plan to give that paywall a door and provide a way to purchase articles online, and The New York Times reported that this paywall sans pay is part of a gradual effort to retrain readers to pay for content online and noted that not everything from the magazine is gone from the website.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer called the move not a paywall, but “the magazine equivalent of a condom” — a way to separate online readers from its print content. She noted that the move limits non-print access to Time to a very select group of people — namely, iPad owners. Essentially, it’s a hardware requirement to read Time magazine, something Publish2’s Scott Karp asked whether we’re going to start to seeing more of.

All Things Digital’s Kafka wondered why Time wouldn’t just offer its print articles for free if the magazine’s print and online audiences were as separate as they’re typically said to be. New York’s Chris Rovsar posited that the new wall is about protecting its $4.99 iPad app: If all your print stuff is available through the iPad browser for free, why buy the app? DailyFinance media critic Jeff Bercovici made the same point and argued that while Time may appear forward-thinking here, this move is really a regression. Newsweek’s Mark Coatney, a former Time staffer, was ruthless in his assessment of the strategy, saying that it all comes back to value, and Time hasn’t articulated why its print content is worth paying for, but its online stuff isn’t.

A paid-content contrast in Britain: Time was far from the only paywall news this past week: Three relatively small Gannett papers put up a $9.95-a-month paywall last Thursday, and the most important new paywall may have been at The Times of London and The Sunday Times, two of Britain’s oldest and most respected publications, which began charging for everything on their site last Friday. That development is particularly important because it’s the first move in the paid-content crusade that Rupert Murdoch has been gearing up for since last summer.

Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Guardian, another prominent British paper that is staunchly in favor of free online content, released a Wordpress plugin that allows blogs and websites to embed the full text of Guardian stories for free. (Steve Outing demonstrated with a post on the iPad.) It’s an unprecedented move, and one that made for a pretty easy contrast with the Times’ protectionist strategy online. Outing did it most explicitly in two posts, arguing that the Guardian’s strategy taps into a worldwide revenue potential, while the Times relies on its brand-loyal British readers. Murdoch “apparently still doesn’t understand that this whole pay-for-news-online thing is not about the needs of publishers like him. It’s about what the audience for news is willing to do and willing to pay for,” he wrote.

Learning from (and fighting with) content farms: Since acquiring the online content provider Associated Content in May, Yahoo has become the latest online media company to begin producing articles based on a calculation of search terms, including for its new news blog, The Upshot. The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford took a look at these “content farms,” focusing on why journalists hate them and what news organizations might be able to learn from them. (On the latter point, Stableford’s sources said content farms’ acute attentiveness to what people are interested in reading could be particularly instructive.)

One of the people Stableford quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” clarified his stance a bit, saying that what bugs him is not the low pay, but the lack of quality. Still, he acknowledged that because of cost-cutting, many small- and medium-sized newspapers’ content is just as mediocre. Peter Berger, a CEO of Suite101.com, one of those content generators, said the concern from news organizations is a red herring, and his industry really presents the biggest threat to non-fiction books.

Canadian writer Liz Metcalfe voiced some similar thoughts, arguing that the problem with the “demand content” model isn’t the model itself, but the poor quality of what gets produced. Newspapers should find a way to incorporate the model while producing high-quality material, and beat the content farms at their own game, she said. On the other hand, Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

A private group called the Internet Content Syndication Council wants to do something about these dastardly villains, and they’re exploring a few options, including drafting a set of content-quality guidelines, licensing content syndicators and asking Google to tweak its search formula. CNET’s Caroline McCarthy wondered what a guideline or licensing system would do with bloggers.

Chronicling an accelerating shift to mobile: The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a couple of fascinating studies in the past week, the first on the future of social relations online and the second a survey of Americans’ mobile use. The latter study in particular turned up a raft of interesting statistics, led by the finding that 59 percent of adults go online wirelessly, including 47 percent of Americans with their laptops and 40 percent with their cell phones.

Poynter’s Mobile Media focused on the rise in “non-voice” uses for cell phones over the past year (Silicon Alley Insider has it in graphical form). The New York Times and Washington Post centered on the survey’s finding that African-Americans, Hispanics, young people and poorer Americans are among the heaviest mobile media users, with the Times stating that “the image of the affluent and white cellphone owner as the prototypical mobile Web user seems to be a mistaken one.”

Here at the Lab, Laura McGann seized on another tidbit from the study indicating that about a fifth of young adults have made a donation via their cell phone. She tied that finding to the public radio station WBUR’s attempt to find a way to allow users to donate via an iPhone app, something Apple doesn’t allow, asking how nonprofit news orgs might be able to find a way to tap into that willingness to give through their cell phones.

Reading roundup: Lots of really thoughtful stuff this week that’s well worth your time (I assume it is, anyway — maybe your time’s much more valuable than mine):

— The debate over objectivity and journalism raged on this week, fueled by the firing of CNN’s Octavia Nasr over a remark she made on Twitter. Many of the arguments circled around to the same ground we’ve covered with the Gen. McChrystal and Dave Weigel flare-ups, but I wanted to highlight three takes that stand out: Salon’s Dan Gillmor on America’s “technically good subservient press,” Jay Rosen on “objectivity as a form of persuasion,” and Mediaite’s Philip Bump on a journalism of individuals.

— Many new media folks have been following the fate of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, and the Columbia Journalism Review has a pretty definitive account of where they stand.

— ReadWriteWeb has a handy resource for zooming out and taking a look at the big picture — a summary of five key web trends so far at 2010’s halfway point.

— Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the short-lived journalism startup NewsTilt and comes away with some helpful lessons.

— Finally, Google researcher Paul Adams has a presentation on the problems with the way social media is designed that’s been making its way around the web. It’s a whopping 216 slides, but it’s a simple yet insightful glance at what feels just a little bit wrong about our social interactions online and why.

January 22 2010

15:06

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ paywall plans, and what’s behind MediaNews’ bankruptcy

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s news about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times’ paywall proposal: No question about media and journalism’s biggest story this week: The New York Times announced it plans to begin charging readers for access to its website in 2011. Here’s how it’ll work: you can view an as-yet-unidentified number of articles for free each month before the Times requires you to pay a flat, unlimited-access fee to see more; this is known as a metered system. (If you subscribe to the print edition, it’ll be free.) Two Times execs answered questions about the plan, including whether you can still email and link to articles (you can) and why it’s different from TimesSelect, the abandoned paid-content experiment it tried from 2005-07. Gabriel Sherman of New York’s Daily Intel, who broke the rumor on Sunday, has some details of the paywall debate within the Times.

There’s been a ton of reaction to the Times’ plan online, so I’ll tackle it in three parts: First, the essential reading, then some other worthwhile opinions, and finally the interesting ephemera.

Four must-reads: It makes sense to start with New York Times media critic David Carr’s take on the plan, because it’s the most the thorough, cogent defense of the Times’ paywall you’ll find. He argues that Times execs “have installed a dial on the huge, heaving content machine of The New York Times,” giving the site another flexible revenue stream outside of advertising. If you’re up for a little algebra, Reuters’ Felix Salmon has a sharp economic analysis of the paywall, arguing that the value of each article will become much greater for subscribers than nonsubscribers. For the more theoretical-minded, CUNY prof C.W. Anderson has some fascinating thoughts here at the Lab on how the paywall turns the Times into a niche product and what it means for our concept of the “public.” And as usual, Ken Doctor thoughtfully answers many of the practical questions you’re asking right now.

Other thoughtful opinions: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell poses a lot of great business questions and wonders how the Times will handle putting the burden on its most loyal online-only users. Steve Yelvington reminds us that we’re not going to learn much here that we can apply to other papers, because “the Times is fundamentally in a different business than regional dailies” and “a single experiment with a single price point by a single newspaper is just a stab in the dark.” Before the announcement, former Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, Forrester Research’s James McQuivey, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon gave the Times advice on constructing its paywall, almost none of which showed up in the Times’ plans. Two massive tech blogs, TechCrunch and Mashable, think the paywall won’t amount to much. Slate’s Jack Shafer says people will find ways to get around it, NYU’s Jay Rosen echoes C.W. Anderson’s thoughts on niche vs. public, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis doesn’t like the Times’ sense of entitlement.

The ephemera: The best stuff on Twitter about the announcement was collected at E&P In Exile and the new site MediaCritic. Steve Outing and Jason Fry don’t like the wait ’til 2011, and Cory Doctorow is skeptical that that’s even true. Former E&Pers Fitz & Jen interview a few newspaper execs and find that (surprise, surprise) the like the Times’ idea. So does Steven Brill of Journalism Online, who plans to roll out a few paywalls of his own soon. Dan Gillmor wants the Times to find out from readers what new features they’d pay for, and Jeff Sonderman makes two good points: “The major casualty of NYT paywall is sharing,” and “Knowing the ‘meter is running’ creates cautious viewing of the free articles.”

Apple’s tablet to go public: Apple announced that it will unveil its “latest creation” (read: its new tablet) next Wednesday. Since the announcement came a day after word of the Times’ paywall plans broke, it was only natural that the rumors would merge. The Daily Intel’s Gabriel Sherman, who broke the story of those Times plans, quoted Times officials putting the Times-tablet-deal rumors to rest. The Wall Street Journal detailed Apple’s plans for the tablet to do to newspapers, magazines and TV what the iPod did to music. Meanwhile, Columbia j-student Vadim Lavrusik and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr got tired of the tablet hype — Lavrusik for the print industry and Carr for tech geeks. (The Week also has a great timeline of the rumors.)

MediaNews goes bankrupt: Last Friday, MediaNews Group — a newspaper chain that publishes the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury-News, among others — announced it would file for bankruptcy protection. (A smaller chain, Morris Publishing Group, made the same announcement the day before.) For the facts and background of the filing, we’ve got a few sources: At the Lab, MediaNews veteran Martin Langeveld has a whole lot of history and insight on MediaNews chief Dean Singleton. News business analyst Alan Mutter tells us about the amazing fact that Singleton will come out of the filing unscathed but Hearst, which invested in MediaNews to save the San Francisco Chronicle, stands to lose $317 million in the deal. And MinnPost reports that the St. Paul Pioneer Press was the only MediaNews paper losing money.

Looking at the big picture, Ken Doctor says that bankruptcies like these are just a chance for newspapers to buy time while adjusting their strategy in “the fog of media war.” Steve Outing takes a glass-half-full approach, arguing that the downfall of old-media chains like MediaNews are a great opportunity for journalism startups to build a new news ecosystem.

How much do Google News users read?: An annual study by research firm Outsell and Ken Doctor on online and offline news preferences made waves by reporting that 44 percent of Google News users scan headlines without clicking through to the original articles. PaidContent noted that Outsell has a dog in this fight; it openly advocates that news organizations should get more money from Google. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan was not impressed, giving a thorough critique of the study and its perceived implications. Syracuse j-prof Vin Crosbie also wondered whether the same pattern might be true with print headlines.

In a similar vein, BNET’s David Weir used comScore numbers to argue that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft support big newspapers, and Jeff Jarvis made one of his favorite arguments — in defense of the link.

Heartbreak in Haiti: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the journalism and media connections to the largest news story in the world for the past two weeks — the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Several sites noted that Twitter led the way in breaking news of the quake and in raising money for relief. The money aspect is new, but as Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan noted last June, Twitter came of age a long time ago as a medium for breaking global news. That’s what it does. The coverage also provided an opportunity for discussion about the ethics of giving aid while reporting.

Reading roundup: In addition to being out in front of the whole New York Times paywall story, Gabriel Sherman authored a nice, long think piece for The New Republic on the difficulties of one of America’s other great newspapers, The Washington Post. For what it’s worth, Post patriarch Donald Graham thought it was “not even a molehill.”

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloan uses the economic concept of stock and flow to describe the delicate balance between timeliness and permanence the world of online media. It’s a brilliant idea — a must-read.

Finally, a promising new site named MediaCritic, run by Salon veteran Scott Rosenberg, citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor, and Lucasfilm’s Bill Gannon, had its soft launch this week. It looks like it’s going to include some nifty features, like Rosenberg’s regular curation of Twitter commentary on big media subjects.

November 20 2009

20:00

How Steve Brill has adjusted his pay-for-news pitch

Because it’s my job, I’ve followed pretty much everything Steve Brill has said in public about Journalism Online, the pay-for-news firm he launched in April with Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindrey. From the start, they’ve been offering infrastructure and consulting for news organizations that want to charge for access to their websites. But as you’d expect with any new venture, the pitch has changed over time. Here are some tweaks I’ve noticed:

Ditching the term “paywall”

Brill has always been clear that he isn’t advocating a subscription-only approach for news sites. Some content will be free, some will be available only to those who pay. But whereas Brill used to use the term “wall” to describe subscription content, he’s now abandoned that language. “We’re not putting up any kind of a paywall,” he’s been saying, most recently in a heated interview on WBUR. “It’s not a paywall,” he said at a Yale conference last week.

That’s a semantic distinction but one that naturally raises the question: What type of stuff will be subscription-only? I posed that question to Brill at Yale, seeking specific examples, but he wouldn’t say much beyond “unique” and “premium” content. (Steve Outing recently prompted an interesting thread on what, exactly, premium content is.) I didn’t come away with a clearer idea of what his clients intend to charge for, just that I shouldn’t call it a paywall.

Embracing the metered model

Journalism Online will power any type of payment system that publishers choose, but Brill’s thinking has shifted on which strategy is best. Last year, he drafted a memo for The New York Times that championed micropayments and subscriptions for the newspaper’s entire website. In June, he told me, “We don’t think micropayments are going to be a huge part of this deal.” These days, he’s been talking up the metered model employed by The Financial Times, which offers 10 free articles a month before users are required to pay.

Brill’s firm claims trademarks on the names of six models — he calls them “dials” — that news publishers could employ:

— High Activity Pay Points (metered model)
— Selected Content Pay Points (partial paywall)
— Time-Based Pay Points (charge for new content)
— Enhanced Service Pay Points (charge for special features)
— Market Access Pay Points (charge based on user’s location)
— Preview Activity Pay Points (allow previewing of paid content)

Broadening the target audience

In the spring, Brill told me the goal was “to get the 5 or 10 percent of your most committed readers to pay.” This summer, he expanded that target in an interview with CNN: “The idea is that a newspaper probably has 10 or 15 percent of its audience who are the most engaged, who come to that Web site all the time. Those are the people who will be asked to pay a small portion.”

At Yale last week, he said “10 or 15 or 20 percent” of a news site’s unique monthly visitors might be willing to pay. I don’t presume to know what a realistic goal is, though that’s obviously crucial to the success or failure of paid-content plans. I do know that one study found “core loyalists,” who visit 2 to 3 times a day for 20 days a month, represent 25% of visitors to newspaper sites. So if you’re probing Brill’s estimates, there’s your starting point.

Exaggerating his firm’s success

“We now have over 1,200 affiliates,” Brill said on the radio yesterday, making it sound like 1,200 publications are ready to charge their readers for digital content. Asked to clarify, he said, “Companies representing or owning over 1,200 publications have all signed letters of intent.” We know that includes Guardian News and Media, which doesn’t appear likely to charge readers. Most of the other companies that have signed non-binding letters of intent remain a mystery, which makes the whole thing increasingly mysterious.

Brill is certainly under no obligation to disclose his clients, but the more he touts a dubious figure, the more skeptical I grow. Here’s a harder statistic, reported by Poynter: Between 5 and 15 publishers will start testing Journalism Online’s infrastructure “in the next month or so.” The firm’s own business model is dependent on at least some of its 1,200 affiliates pulling the trigger: Journalism Online is taking a 20% cut of subscription revenue.

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