Odd Logic: If You Value Your Readers, You Should Make Them Pay

from the isn't-that-backwards? dept

We've done the "paywall' debate over and over again, and it's hardly worth rehashing. However, the latest discussion among those who focus on such things is the fascinating experiment by uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has spent the past few years tethering his blog to big media properties who pay him for the privilege, but who has decided to go completely independent, with no ads and fully supported (he hopes!) by loyal fans of the site paying at least $19.95. As he makes clear, this is not a paywall. At best, you could consider it a very weak "nagwall." All of the content will remain free and available. The full text RSS feeds will remain free from "the meter" (as he calls it). The only people who will be impacted are those who read the site directly and click "read more" on longer posts that have to be expanded to read the whole thing. Those who don't pay and visit the site directly and click read more on those articles will see a few for free and then be asked to pay -- though, they could just revisit the page by finding a link. That's because any visit from a link won't count towards the meter. He's right that this isn't a paywall, and in many ways it's similar to the NY Times' setup, which isn't really a paywall either.

And, the initial results are fantastic. They brought in $333k in the first day, which is pretty amazing. The site has a staff of seven, and it sounds like they're hoping to get over a million to cover salaries and expenses. Also interesting is that the $19.95 payment is a minimum option: there's a pay-what-you-want option above that, and "on average, readers paid almost $8 more" than that minimum. Of course, that data might be skewed by the fact at least one person ponied up $10,000.

First off, I'll say that I think this is a cool experiment and hope that Sullivan succeeds (as it appears he's likely to do). Considering that we're a site with somewhat similar traffic numbers (from what's been reported) and staff, it's encouraging to think that readers would step up and support it to that level. I'm happy that he's not going with a "paywall," but a solution that recognizes the value of having his readers be able to share and link to the blog without fear of bumping into a wall. Also, I agree wholeheartedly with Jay Rosen who highlights that what makes this work is the incredibly strong relationship Sullivan has built with his community. What's that saying? Oh yeah, connect with fans, give them a reason to buy. I've heard that one before. Also, something about being open, human and awesome. Sullivan hits on all those points. So it's very cool to see in action.

As excited as I am to see cool business model experimentation, and to see it in a manner that really is built on not locking up content, there are a few things that strike me as odd about this. These aren't criticisms, per se, because as I've said, I think that the idea is wonderful for a site like Sullivan's Daily Dish, and I think it's quite likely to succeed. But some of the statements that Sullivan made in announcing this, and some of the explanation, just doesn't ring true to me. First up, he tosses out that old chestnut about how "if you're not paying for the product, you are the product." And this is just days after we had a good explanation for why that saying is mostly bullshit. He follows that line with this one:
We want to treat our readers better than that, because you deserve better than that.
That strikes me as equally inaccurate. Treating your readers "better" means making them pay? Really? Yes, it's working in that they're willing to pay (which is great), but it seems ridiculous to argue that your readers are so valuable... that they should pay you. Getting people to pay is a perfectly fine business model if you can pull it off, but it's no more noble than other business models. The readers in that situation may not be "the product," but now they're "the money," and that has its own issues.

Now, of course, we have plenty of experience with this ourselves. We've set up ways that readers can pay us directly as well (and we appreciate each and every one who has supported us in that way!). But we don't claim that one way is somehow more pure than the other -- and we try to focus on providing additional benefits for those who do decide to support us: whether it's neat features, opportunities to hang out or cool merchandise. But there's nothing more "pure" about one model than another.

My second issue is really the flipside of the first. Along with highlighting the "purity" of getting his audience to pay, he denigrates the entire concept of advertising:
The decision on advertising was the hardest, because obviously it provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products. But we know from your emails how distracting and intrusive it can be; and how it often slows down the page painfully. And we're increasingly struck how advertising is dominated online by huge entities, and how compromising and time-consuming it could be for so few of us to try and lure big corporations to support us. We're also mindful how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content.
Now, it's absolutely true that an awful lot of advertising sucks in exactly the manner described above. But that doesn't mean it needs to be that way. There's a growing recognition in the industry that intrusive and annoying advertising is not the way to go for exactly the reasons that Sullivan explains above. But as we've discussed, when you do advertising right, it's simply good content itself that people want. That's why a month from now, the most popular thing on Superbowl Sunday won't be the football game, but the commercials. There are times that people seek out advertising and are happy to see it. And compelling ad/sponsorship campaigns need to be about that.

Now, it's reasonable to admit that many marketers haven't full grasped this concept, and dragging them, kicking and screaming, into this new era is not something that Sullivan and his team wants to take on. And that's a reasonable argument (and, as someone who's spent way too much time trying to convince marketers of this thing, only to see them default back to silly, pointless, misleading ad metrics, I can completely respect such a decision). But, it seems wrong to slam "all advertising" into a single bucket, just because some (or even a lot of) advertising is done really poorly.

Again, I think this is a great move for Sullivan and his blog, and wish him tremendous success. We're certainly watching closely from over here. But, it still makes me cringe a little to see those two claims being made in his announcement. Yes, perhaps it helps in the positioning -- and framing the whole thing as some grand social experiment in purity over crass commercialism. In other words, it's a form of marketing all on its own. But, I still think it's a bit unfair and exploitative, without being particularly accurate.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2013 @ 5:49pm

    lol at "this isn't a paywall". Good grief.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Jan 4th, 2013 @ 5:59pm


    lol at "this isn't a paywall". Good grief.

    Really? How is it a paywall?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2013 @ 6:21pm

    I want to go to Andrew's site and read a full article. I don't want to deal with finding workarounds or searching out links to it, or any other time-wasting PITA tactics. So I have to pay to see all of it. That's a paywall.

    Not some twisted, made-up moniker you thought of today, but a paywall.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    jameshogg (profile), Jan 4th, 2013 @ 6:36pm

    Paywalls remind me of the U.S.-Mexico border fence that only covers some of the border, can be climbed over, dug under, or just ripped apart to walk straight through. A waste of people's time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2013 @ 6:57pm


    The site is paywalled because you would ratter pay for the articles instead of taking a a few seconds to Yandex or Google them, seriously?!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Zos (profile), Jan 4th, 2013 @ 7:07pm

    i have to admit, i'm far more likely to turn around and just hit the next google news result rather than deal with any sort of work around, let alone pay for MOST sites.

    (the ones i'd bother to work around are mostly smart enough never to give me a reason to need to.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2013 @ 7:34pm

    How much money is he getting from George Soros for this endeavor?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 4th, 2013 @ 9:29pm


    More like a one foot high fence if you ask me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Jan 5th, 2013 @ 1:03am


    I want to go to Andrew's site and read a full article. I don't want to deal with finding workarounds or searching out links to it, or any other time-wasting PITA tactics. So I have to pay to see all of it. That's a paywall.

    Uh, based on that, then I could argue that any publication that charges for its offline version, but not its online version, has a paywall even though it has no online paywall. I would just say "I want to read the Washington post and read the full article. I don't want to deal with getting online or understanding a brower or any other time-wasting PITA tactics. So I have to pay to get a copy. That's a paywall."

    Except it's not.

    A paywall is *A WALL*. It means you can't see the content for free. That's not what this is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2013 @ 5:42am

    Couldn't he just have gone with Project Wonderful instead of Google Ads?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Josef Anvil (profile), Jan 5th, 2013 @ 5:42am

    Math is good

    I know there is a general disdain for paywalls, but the fact is that if the numbers work for you, then a paywall is a good business model to use.

    It's basically all about the math. Advertisers seem to understand this VERY well. If you get enough eyes on your product then some will buy. It works the same for paywalls. If you have 30 million people visiting your site every month, then you only need a tiny percentage to actually pony up some cash in order to make it work.

    If you use the concept of elasticity in tandem with your paywall, then you can maximize your profit. A paywall set at $19.95 per year will turn off most people, but a paywall set at $.50 per month, is likely to "ensnare" a magnitude more customers.

    This is all contingent on the size of your audience. If you don't have a sizeable audience to begin with, then you have to be offering something scare. The reason the NYT's paywall is working for them is that they have a ridiculously large audience and an established reputation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 5th, 2013 @ 9:48am

    Re: Re:

    Uh, from the mouth of Andrew Sullivan himself: "You'll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter - so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall. It won't. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter."

    Oh, wait . . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    dombey (profile), Jan 5th, 2013 @ 12:26pm


    Thank you for the clear explanation.

    I'm rarely able to read all of your stuff, but I have to say I greatly appreciate the clarity and the effort it must take to put your and others fine work.

    Thanks again!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    nasch (profile), Jan 5th, 2013 @ 3:36pm


    Is this paywall like the NYT where if you just install Noscript it diasappears?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Zanthexter (profile), Jan 6th, 2013 @ 8:49pm

    Re: Math is good

    You hit it on the head there...it's not the paywall, as is is the height of the paywall.

    I wish more sites would follow the "app model".

    Free with somewhat intrusive ads
    Cheap, but with tasteful relevant ads.
    Reasonable, and now with no ads.

    I can think of at least 20 sites that I'd be willing to throw a dollar or 5 at to be add free for a year, and a handful that I'd do $10-25 a year.

    In fact, while newspapers may have a problem charging for access, most magazine content is unique to that source, and magazines shouldn't have much difficulty moving those subscriptions online. For example, Cook's Illustrated just nailed me for $17.50, and that's after getting a half price offer in email.

    Paywalls are workable, but they need to be like valet parking, not like locks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 4:15am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Just because he says it's not a paywall it doesn't automagically mean it is true. While I do not condemn the attitude as it seems to be working it is, in fact a paywall.

    The question that should be raised here is if this is a good strategy in the long term. I mean how did he build a big community? Would he have built such community if the content of his site was paid from the beginning? How will this approach prevent new people from engaging in the community he built?

    If techdirt suddenly costs $20 a month I'll leave. Not that I don't like it but because it's expensive. Now I read many sources can you imagine if each decides to charge $20 per month for me to read without hassles? I'm comfortable with some advertising and means to 'donate' (watercooler anyone?) when I have the spare money but I simply won't keep with a system described in the article. I may be an outlier but am I really?

    And above all, the point raised in the article is valid. The reasoning behind making it paid is at least odd. For me it's plain bizarre.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 4:20am

    Re: Re:

    I believe it is a wall. It adds hassles to access the content for free so while it's not impossible to bypass the system to see the content for free it adds unnecessary effort to reach it. Maybe a small wall that you can jump to the other side. But still a wall.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Ninja (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 4:30am

    Re: Re: Math is good


    Offer your content for free with ads and maybe some small restrictions (ie: with some payment tiers you get podcasts with the article, others you get additional perks that feature further discussion with an expert etc etc) but the original article is there.

    There are useful and productive ways of setting paywalls. And you don't need to charge shitloads for that, you must always remember that there are TONS of competing services out there and the money pool is limited.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    ComputerAddict (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 9:52am

    I am a little surprised that this hasn't really happened yet, because it is value I could see myself paying for, but why havn't more websites offered "Ad Free" paywall solutions, similar to mobile apps, spotify, etc. It'd be interesting to know how much you would have to pay a website to remove the ads per user. If I could pay $5 to $12 bucks for a year of ad-free techdirt, I probably would.

    Mike if your reading this, what would you have to charge to do something like this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    JMT (profile), Jan 7th, 2013 @ 1:20pm


    "Not some twisted, made-up moniker you thought of today, but a paywall."

    The definition of paywall is pretty clear just from the two words that make up the term. If you don't have to pay to get inside the wall, it's not a paywall. There's nothing twisted or made-up about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    fotografas, Jan 31st, 2013 @ 2:14pm

    With these points we will definitely get the traffic we need on our blog. Thanks for sharing this great content, I really enjoyed the insight you bring to the topic. Awesome stuff!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Borse, Feb 24th, 2013 @ 1:09am

    Thank you for the clear explanation. this is helpful for me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    suvo onee, Feb 26th, 2013 @ 12:49pm


    Offer your content at no cost with advertisements and maybe many modest limitations (ie: with many repayment tiers you receive podcasts with all the content, other people you receive added rewards in which characteristic even more talk with the expert for example etc) though the unique content is there.
    hey, i check out a good site, http://callnotes.org/
    Check this tell, how it is?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    image editing services, Apr 14th, 2013 @ 6:47am


    There is some great thoughts written in the posts.Congratulations!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Dita Photography, Jun 26th, 2014 @ 9:39am

    I agree but only to the half of it

    I've seen one newspaper in my country that tried to make readers pay to "read more" but they got many negative feedback and didn't managed to get many cash out of it. Probably because the information that they were publishing wasn't that worthy.

    So if somebody creates a valuable content I don't mind paying mysefl, but if they are only a little worthy I would complain too.

    I'm new to blogging and started just this year but I just hope that I could attract more people than me. Your insight was very good, I'd like to get money for my blog but I guess it's only for my readers to decide :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    Sigita Gaudutyte (profile), Nov 11th, 2015 @ 9:06am

    I found it very usefull. Thanks for posts. Congrats!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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