Sustaining journalism

Finally catching up with David Folkenflik’s NPR piece yesterday about Columbia J-school’s efforts to help news companies update:

And then there’s the BBC Media Show about pay walls and collaborative hyperlocal and more; listen here.

Warning: You’ll hear me on both.

  • Bob P.

    I listened to both of these — lo and behold, you pop on both programs! ;)

    OK, I keep hearing you say that pay walls won’t work, that openness and links add value, but I never hear you recite any evidence — except maybe the NY Times retreat from its paywall experiment, which I wouldn’t call a definitive event. Simply saying “it’s the link economy; don’t put a wall around yourself; it won’t work” isn’t enough to convince me. I’m not saying you’re wrong. But where’s your data, your evidence?

    Let’s set aside “commodity news” — the Sotomayer hearings or whatever — and talk for a second about a small or medium-sized daily local paper — in Tucson, say, or Topeka or Boise or someplace. This paper is an extremely well-known brand locally, and for many people it is perhaps a well-regarded and trusted brand — perhaps. Most people in town who have any Internet savvy at all certainly know it has a Web site even if they don’t visit it — yet. (Perhaps that’s a marketing problem, or an execution problem, and maybe this paper will figure things out and gradually develop a better digital product). Most of its advertisers are local. It’s most valuable news product is local beat reporting and occasional investigative pieces.

    It seems to me that it’s not entirely crazy for such a paper to consider charging readers. In a case like this, I’m not sure I agree how valuable links are. Who cares about a link that brings in a reader from Ontario to read some quirky bit of news? Local advertisers are going to shrug. Sure you lose some local people perhaps who aren’t big newspaper readers, who might have been refered to an article via a “retweet” from a friend or something. But has anybody yet studied how much is lost from not getting those *local* tweet links or *local* Google search hits vs. how much is gained from asking those most loyal online readers to pay? This is what I really want to know. Maybe it’s all too new to know. Most local papers, I think, are not in the business of “commodity news.” Sure, they print the wire report, but they may not bother with all that on their Web site.

    If the Financial Times and WSJ can get people to pay because they do a good job in their niche, could local news, well done, provide a similar niche? Or do you think it’s only a matter of time before local beat reporting is “commodity news” as well. Right now, in most communities, I don’t believe it is. And so many local papers have such a headstart if not an outright monopoly in trust, name-recognition, etc. Not that the monopoly will last, but its a great advantage that could be leveraged now. I guess time will tell.

    Thanks for your work on all this. Good luck with your health. Get well.

    • Andy Freeman

      > OK, I keep hearing you say that pay walls won’t work

      If Jarvis is really saying that pay walls never work, he’s wrong.

      However, if he’s just saying that folks will chose stuff that isn’t behind a pay wall over stuff that is behind a pay wall, he’s correct.

      If you’re producing good, valuable, and unique, you might be able to get away with a pay wall. However, if you’re missing on any of those, readers won’t cross your pay wall. For example, it’s unlikely that anyone will cross a pay wall to read your Michael Jackson obituary.

  • Eric Gauvin


    You make it sound like charging content will produce complete rejection and will be the same as cutting yourself off from the internet. Is that really what you think? Do you really think charging for content is like “banning links?”

    Also, it sounds like you’re saying people just won’t pay for content since free content is already available. But haven’t we had ubiquitous, free content in the form of TV and radio and even in print for a long time and before the internet? It seems like the commodity news you describe has long been consumed primarily on TV, which is perceived as free (even though we may pay for cable, electricity, etc). In your view, what is it about the web that makes it impossible to charge for content?

    • Eric Gauvin

      To clarify my question, what is it about the free content on the internet that’s different from the free content on TV, radio or print that already existed before the internet?

    • Eric Gauvin

      For example, why is What Would Google Do entering its 8th printing…

      when you can read it online for free?

      • Bob P.

        It’s like those people I run into constantly who say they will NEVER read a book on a computer. Kindle? Please. News online? No way, they say, “I want to get my paper off the porch, pour my cup of coffee, sit on the couch and read the PAPER. It’s how I start the day. I love it.”

        Dinosaurs? Perhaps. But there are lots of dinosaurs roaming still. They’re not the kind of people who’ll be following Jarvis’ blog probably. They’re also not typically, I would guess, people who are in their 20 or even 30s. But newspapers know about them — because they are newspapers best, most loyal customers.

        Eventually they will die off, I suppose. But it will take a good, long while. This is one reason, I think, papers are struggling so much with the move to digital media. To do it really well they must, in some ways, throw out the work flows, the habits, the traditions that have grown up around the paper product. But then they would be telling those most loyal readers, “to hell with you.” What business can do that?

        The change in readers’ habits — in aggregate — will be gradual. In some ways that’s what makes it so hard. A lot of papers are trapped between the two worlds — and they can’t necessarily afford to do both well. If the change in readers habits were instantaneous, it might be easier.

      • Eric Gauvin

        I think what I would call “reading pleasure” is a very important component of content consumption. I can see opportunities for innovation in that area.

  • In the 90ies there was a joke about paid content in the web and why it can’t work, it was one word: “Microsoft”.

    The Long version: if there is a content that people are so happy about that they would pay for it then Microsoft will give this content away for free (to consumers) to attract people and sell them their products (Windows, Office, you name it).

    Today this field is much wider, there are a lot of companies out there who need attractive content to drive consumers to their advertising.

    Those companies will pay for content or produce them in their own company. But they will give a lot of content away for free to consumers.

    And that’s for me the main reason why pay walls don’t work: they keep consumers out.

    Maybe the EPIXHD concept or the Comcast experiment with autmatic authentication will be a solution for high quality streaming of Video like Spotify and for streaming Audio. But they don’t rise pay walls they only move an existing pay for content model to another distribution channel, the web.

    I hope that a lot of old fashioned companies start massively adding those pay walls and get hit heavily by the market. So everybody out there could learn this lesson: consumer contents are free for consumers. If marketers don’t pay for the consumers you reach on the web you should give up publishing there. Nobody will miss you.