From the title of this article in Forbes, by Raju Narisetti, the managing editor of the Washington Post, you might think it was going to be another rant against "free" online and talk up the wonders of paywalls. After all, the article is called "Why Free is Very Expensive."
But, the article actually is much more nuanced, and effectively explains why folks at The Washington Post think that a paywall doesn't really make much sense:
Here is why revenue from readers is unlikely to be our salvation.
-- A metered model makes your business susceptible to the will of a few readers--those who consume the most articles/pages. Often, less than 5% of these kinds of visitors account for nearly 50% of your page views. And they have very little barriers to exit.
-- Aggregators, like Huffington Post, will still find ways to deliver your content for free and often with more engaging technologies since they don't have to invest much in content creation.
-- The infrastructure for payment systems, data security, customer service, reader acquisition and retention for digital subscriptions costs a bundle to build and run, yet your consumer price points need to be low, making the return on investment a clear challenge.
-- Our Web sites were to be trusted safe havens protecting, informing and entertaining you amid a deluge of digital content. And when you came to us, we would make money off you. But that was before your friends became your trusted sources. There are 600 million of you on Facebook and we know we need to be there too with our content. We haven't even begun to fathom that monetization challenge. So, we could up end an expensive drawbridge around Web sites that are already losing their value?
-- Scrolling on Web sites has always been a poor experience for consuming news. Now, just as new devices and digital experiences--none invented by major news brands--create richer engagement outside our sites, we are talking about charging readers for sub-optimal Web site consumption.
He does point out, as everyone agrees, that it is costly to run a major modern news operation, and that the digital business models for large publications like the one he works for haven't kept pace. But, thankfully, unlike some of his competitors, he wants to look forward and not backwards. He's looking at the ways large successful internet companies are making more and more money by increasing convenience and building more value
I, for one, think that the golden age of targeted digital advertising is yet to come. Do we really want to trade that larger opportunity for the much smaller and unreliable pursuit of consumer dollars? I also wonder if we aren't better off redeploying our newsroom resources to create new revenue streams and more engaging digital platforms than trying to make the traditional Web experience better and charge for it....
Free is indeed very expensive. But, what the prolonged and knee-jerk debate about free vs. paid inside our news organizations shows is that we still have what led us here in the first place: An imagination deficit. Rather than apply an Ďall or nothing' approach focused, perhaps wrongly, on just our Web sites, we should be willing to make creative bets on our business model. We continue to make what is being consumed--in large quantities. It is time we figured out how to make it easier, more engaging and useful. Despite their soaring valuations, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter don't create much, if anything at all, by way of original content. And, for that matter, neither do Google or YouTube. They simply make it easy, useful and engaging to their audiences. These are incredibly disruptive times and one thing is clear to me: There isn't time or room for incrementalism at major news organizations.
It's nice to finally see someone at a major publication recognize this point that many of us have been making for a while. For all the talk of paywalls, there's been very little done to actually increase the value of the online experience for users at these newspaper sites. There's been very little effort to build and support community. It's nice to see that at least one major paper is hopefully moving in that direction.