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Can’t We All Just Subscribe? Why ‘Paywalls’ Won’t Get Us Anywhere

Circling in my head this week are two media bits that I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to if I wasn’t still mulling over the state of paid journalism.

The first was an email from Pro Publica, on the tail of its release of “Dollars for Docs,” asking for a donation to help continue the good work. The second was a blog post you can read here about what newspaper execs should really say to users about paywalls.

And here is my conclusion: we have got to stop using the word ‘paywall.’ Now there will be some of you that are in the ‘information wants to be free,’ camp. That’s fine when it comes to transparency and politics, but not so great a business model for news pubs. So let’s stop talking about putting up walls to keep people out. The paywall has only led to griping from consumers who’ve reached their monthly article limit, and unique ways to get around them. We’re wordsmiths, we know words matter, and ‘paywall’ is another relic of the old media-new media debate. Knock it off.

Why can’t we just call it what it is? A subscription. Of course, many in the industry have finally started calling subscriptions (see what I did there?) what they are: a quick fix to make balance sheets look better. They add another revenue source, and that’s it.

Raju Narisetti said in an interview this week:

You have to think of it as a revenue stream from your most loyal people that will help, because it’s a little bit of an annuity, if you will, that will help soften the blow of what’s happening to CPMs of most papers and what’s happening to advertising. It will cushion the blow, it’ll create a new revenue stream, and in time could create more loyalty and potential upselling opportunities for ebooks and events and things like that. But it’s just going to be that — it’s going to be a stream of revenue that you didn’t have, but it’s not going to solve your problems. If anybody out there thinks a paywall is going to solve our industry’s problems in itself, they’re in for a very rude surprise.

Fine, a subscription model can’t be it. And there has to be a way, eventually, to figure out how to make digital dollars with advertising, too. But I think you have to be really cynical about humanity to just assume that no one is going to want to read interesting, enlightening, meaningful content on all the cool toys that tablets will spawn. And that it will be paid for. And that there will be the same sort of selection – from the soapy, poorly targeted tabloids to the wonky and elitist journals — that we  used to have on newsstands. Call me idealist. Call me naive. At least I’m not defeatist.

Members Only

The internet has spawned niche news. And social media has fostered this sense of self promotion. We are what we read, who we follow, what we post. It’s like the high school cafeteria. That’s sort of troubling when it comes to politics and polarization, but I think its a good thing for news publications. Instead of making people feel like they have to pay for something they should want, we should make people want to pay to get what they want. That’s why we’re all scrambling around making video channels and putting news app teams together. NPR’s doing it. So does Pro Publica. Even Slate has floated the idea of a membership program. Of course, you have to have good stuff to make people pay. Local papers should host panel talks and events. E-books about local history. Why not? Host job boards, which are getting better and better. The New York Daily News just put out a City Guide app. Of course, it’s not cool enough yet to make people want it, but, and I hate to say this, but they’re onto something over there. We have to stop moping around the newsroom like Grumpy Cats and get over ourselves. No, subscriptions and membership drives are not the solution. But they’re part of it. I think the time is starting to be right.

On Target

One conclusion about SXSW this year was that apps were passe, the focus was on real-world uses of technology, and that the Kickstarter model was running rampant through many of the ideas circling around Austin.

This makes me believe that I can’t be entirely wrong. Marketing is getting more targeted and consumer friendly. People are using technology in this utopian sort of way, to donate, or pay, for things they want to happen. I’m not exactly sure what the connection is, but I know it’s there. Take two or three people you would put in charge of new products in your newsroom and make them start talking about how innovate in advertising models. Raju Narissetti said it again this week, too. I think digital newsrooms are stuck in the bubble. Finding new revenue models is someone else’s job. But it’s not — it’s our job, too. There’s a whole bunch of new obstacles in the digital landscape. And we’re still mourning our old expectations for how news publications can make money. I think we have to switch it. Stop thinking about the obstacles — clicks don’t work! we don’t know how our readers are engaging! there is so much for free to compete with! –as new. They aren’t. They are the status quo. And stop trying to compare the new landscape with the old one. It’s over, it’s gone. Journalism isn’t as lost as the music industry, and yet it’s not quite as lucky to be the television/cable industry, which still has time to save its soul. We’re somewhere in between. And we’re lucky enough that the tools, the technology, and the culture is on our side. If we stop working against it.

Tell me I’m wrong.

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