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To Pay or Not To Pay – Is That The Question?

“Good Will Hunting” was on the other day, and I caught the scene where Matt Damon rants about having a library card education:

Wood drastically…Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth. You got that from Vickers. Work in Essex County, page 98, right? Yeah, I read that, too. You gunna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts that…of your own on this matter? Or do you– is that your thing? You come into a bar, you read some obscure passage, and then pretend you, you pawn it off as your own…as your own idea just to impress some girls..? Embarrass my friend? See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in fifty years you’re gunna start doing some thinkin’ on your own, and you’re gunna’ come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and, two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.

This scene got me thinking about the current discussions about publications attempting to stand behind a pay-wall, charging readers a fee to read their content. Of course, this discussion has deep implications for the economics of the journalism profession. The question that keeps popping up is, Why should a reader have to pay for content that is pretty much identical from publication to publication? A news story about tax increases will have the same basic information in the New York Times as in the Wall Street Journal, so why should I have to pay twice for it?

We’ve been down this road before. Indeed, we were having a similar discussion in the early 1980s with cable television. For 30 years, TV viewers only had to pay for the hardware, the TV set, and not the software, the programming. We were able to watch free TV because of a) public interest and b) advertising. But with the addition of Super Stations and cable TV, the American public was faced with a decision: to subscribe to cable or to only watch the public airwaves –NBC, ABC and CBS. We all know the outcome: we decided it was ok to pay for content.

With the advent of the Internet we’ve become accustomed to getting free content from innumerable sites, an argument goes, why should I have to pay for information that is free? Very good question, although it misses the point. We’re not paying for the content, we’re paying for the curation of the content – to use a current buzz word.

We go to college for a variety of reasons – the American mobility dream, education, sports, getting away from parents, etc – and when we’re in a classroom, we’re often taught by experts (professors who have studied a very precise area of a certain field; corporate leaders who are giving back by passing along their expertise). Sometimes, we’re in a class with Teacher’s Assistants (T.A’s) who are typically graduate students learning how to teach, how to command a classroom, as opposed to the actual material.

These subject matter experts are a major reason why college is expensive. We pay for the university brand, we pay for the location, but most of all, we pay to be educated by the experts. By the time we get to college, we know how to read. However, we may not know how to take the material and apply it to everyday life. College, theoretically, teaches us this. Professors, especially the good ones, teach us how to connect seemingly disparate dots; for example, how does learning about biology help a communications student?

There is a theory of investigation which started in the biological science (and then adapted to the communications discipline, among other social sciences) called “general system theory” coined by Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (Bertalanffy, L. von. (1950). “An Outline of General System Theory.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2.), who argued that a system would be a “set of elements standing in interaction” or “a complex of interacting elements;” in other words, all systems – whether an organism or an organization – are governed by the same set of characteristics which allow them to function together as a system: whether it’s a host of liver cells that are introduced to other liver cells to help the liver work or it’s a company with 10 employees who hires a new employee, thus changing the dynamic of the workers, the rules of the system dictate how the new pieces act and react to the other established ones.

Journalists have a similar role; they educate us by taking information from experts and crafting a narrative (whether that narrative is objective or subjective is important, but not at this moment. We’ll get to that in another post – would love your ideas) to inform us.

Journalists, through their content, curate the news in order for us to understand many different areas of life and thus, become a more informed public. Citizen journalism has expanded this and has deeply affected the news industry, making the argument that citizen journalists are the sweeping hand of Adam Smith’s marketplace of ideas.

There also seems to be a secondary discussion stemming from the pay-wall debate, and that is academic versus applicable; theory against practice. This debate may be even more telling about both industries, journalism and academia, than the primary pay-wall discussion. Journalists argue they need some version of a pay-wall (the private option?) to be able to do their jobs and academics argue that a pay-wall is counter-productive to an information-based society who has the technology and capabilities to post information on their own.

This is kind of like a discussion between two colleagues, one a filmmaker, the other a film critic, I overheard several years ago when I was an adjunct professor.

Critic: When will you people (filmmakers) make some solid movies? Take the criticisms of the moving image and incorporate them into your film. It will be better. Trust me, I’m a film theorist.

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, Fuck You. When did you ever get behind a camera and have to deal with cranky actors, annoying producers, everything falling behind schedule? Fuck theory; I’m making art.

Critic: But if you make a film with a theoretical background, it will be better, thus selling more tickets and putting money in your pockets.

Filmmaker: But if you’ve never made a film, how can you tell me what will work and what won’t?

So who’s correct – critic or auteur? At the end of the day, neither – it’s the audience. We know what we like and what we don’t (which doesn’t necessarily mean we know what’s good and what’s not). How we get our news is similar: we know what we like and what we don’t, what we trust and what we don’t, and because of that, we have many different publications to read which help shape our views and beliefs.

Journalism is not the sole influencer, but one of many. Many of us still look to journalism to help us reach informed decisions. We research various outlets, hearing what different journalists and their sources tell us about a particular issue; we read multiple columnists to internalize ideas and come to a decision on our own.

In short, we need not just the content, but also the process of being educated through the press. And this can’t be done for free. Not in our economic structure. When the dust settles, I’m pretty confident we’ll continue to pay for curated content – content from experts who help shape our perceptions.
What we won’t do is pay for content without context, content we can get for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.

Would love to hear your thoughts on pay-walls: are they important? Justifiable? Will they be accepted?

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


3 thoughts on “To Pay or Not To Pay – Is That The Question?

  1. Here's where I have a problem is with the companies that want to put up the pay wall, not with the curators.I don't want to pay money into something where I know that I'm helping pay for a giant building in Manahttan, a CEO's salary, printing costs for a newspaper, etc. I'd much rather give John Gruber $20 a year than News Corp or Newsday.I'll pay for someone to curate my news, but it's more likely that I'll pay for a site like Daring Fireball where I know that I'm paying money to the person who is curating, not a giant corporation.After working in a newsroom and interacting with the folks who do the curating, I know that they can use my money better than the company who was paying them.

    Posted by Rob Blatt | November 30, 2009, 7:51 pm
  2. I think that in most cases, except the few (WSJ), paywalls haven't worked. They have taken away traffic from the sites that put them up and the subscription revenue doesn't match that of advertising lost. Ideally, a pub with paywalls should be able to charge more for ads because of readers that are more valuable, but to my knowledge that has yet to be executed. I think Rob makes an interesting point. People would be more willing to pay for quality news that is on a smaller scale. Value should be the goal here, something that most startups focus on first. Then comes the revenue from consumers that value the service they are getting. I think that eventually we are going to see some news orgs finally stop talking about paywalls, implement them, and fail. Then we'll get back to talking about something that is actually sustainable.

    Posted by Vadim Lavrusik | November 30, 2009, 10:25 pm
  3. @ Rob – Thanks for the comment. I agree, that if I knew my subscription fee was going to writers, it would be much easier to argue for a paywall. @Vadim Why do some paywalls work and others don't? Is it because we value the content (or even the company) enough to pay for it? Re: advertisers – they have to put their money somewhere, right? I would guess that soon enough, the advertisers will follow not just eyeballs, but as you put it, readers that are more valuable to them and can use different online advertising techniques (behavioral targeting, contextual targeting, etc) to reach them. But this creates even more questions about appropriate advertising techniques and tools. CPA vs CPM vs CPC vs BT and so on, to the point where there's no single, simple model like TV advertising. So once again, we find ourselves in 'wild wild west' territory.

    Posted by Josh Sternberg | November 30, 2009, 11:16 pm

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