from the backwards-economics dept
While there's room for debate on whether Rupert Murdoch's paywall strategy for the UK Times and Sunday Times has been disastrous or just mediocre, it certainly hasn't been a massive success or reinvented any online news business models. Now we're beginning to see some telling cracks in the facade: the Times paywall recently came down during the Queen's jubilee weekend, and now TNW reports that a similar free-access period is being considered for the 2012 Olympics.
Now, promotional giveaways are hardly a new or crazy idea, and they don't typically say anything bad about a business model—but I don't think that's really what's happening here. Certainly the Times hopes to convert some of those free readers into paid online subscribers, but there's also a clear pattern in the items they choose to make these exceptions for: huge social events that are attended and discussed by lots of people. In other words, precisely the sort of thing where blogs and social media offer the most competition to a newspaper. Why would anybody pay for Olympic reporting when the web is going to be absolutely flooded with constant updates on every little thing that happens, supplied for free by the fans and hangers-on? If the Times content is behind a paywall, it will be all but ignored.
And this really goes to show why, in the long run, paywalls are unsustainable. If the biggest, most popular topics are the hardest to control—and the ones that lose value the most when controlled successfully—while at the same, time social media and citizen reporting output is growing and expanding to new areas constantly, then the inevitable conclusion seems clear: paywalls are, at best, a temporary way of extracting a little bit of cash at the expense of long-term relevance. If your goal is to directly sell news as a product, but you discover that you have to eliminate your prices whenever product demand is highest, something is clearly wrong—you're trying to apply an old model where it doesn't actually fit, and getting kooky results. The solution is not to keep compromising the broken model, but to embrace the underlying realities (infinite content, no barrier to publishing, the huge value of share-ability) that broke it, and build new models around them.