The paywall experiment

Posted on May 25, 2010


Shortly the Times will begin its Great Paywall Experiment, locking out all but paid (£1 a day, £2 a week) subscribers.

It is very easy to laugh at Murdoch for taking this approach, but actually it’s a pretty good thing that someone has the balls/stupidity/temerity/whatever to do it. Many people – me included – have spent a lot of time over the past few years debating where the value is now that the volume of free stuff has increased a million fold. Like many of my peers, I’ve long been convinced of the value of scale rather than scarcity, but its been a long and often hard sell to many who still believe in traditional models, and we have all been scrabbling about looking for solid financial evidence to support one or other argument.

The Times approach will be a  pretty effective litmus test of applying a traditional business model to a non-traditional environment. It will also be an interesting case study in what social media – and, in fact, the web – actually means when it comes to virality and the Long Tail. Not only does the locking out prevent Google from spidering content, it also means that bloggers, Twitter users – in fact anyone using the web to comment – simply won’t be able to. Any links pointing to content in the Times site will end up at the sign-up page: essentially a pretty effective total blackout of in-linking. And if you believe what most of us have been saying since the dawn of the web – that linking is the lifeblood of this environment – then it is hard to understand how this model is going to work.

On Radio 4 this morning we heard James Harding, editor of the Times talking about the move. Some of what he said needs applauding: he talked about how in this online world we should appreciate the value of journalism, for example. This wonderful post by Kevin Kelly talks about the need for quality editorial control and journalism; certainly, the more STUFF there is shouting at us, the more we’re going to appreciate the people who can write well or help us sift our way through the quantity.

On the other hand, he also came out with some pretty startling stuff about “shop windows” (the analogy: window shoppers are the “shallow” reader, “real” shoppers are the ones who will pay) and how the Times is “doing exactly what we do with the printed paper”. Looking at the new designs for the site, the immediate response is “Hey, a newspaper. On a screen”. The visual analogy is so strong, you can’t help but feel that someone just scanned the paper version and uploaded it. And if we’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it is that online content is more than just a hyperlinked book…

Over more than a decade of working with content-rich organisations, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that traditional models can’t be mindlessly shoe-horned into this new paradigm where a copy-paste-send makes us all content pirates. Charging for access to content requires a lot of thought: it only works in specific, carefully honed environments where the value of content displaces cost in ways that are more subtle than ever before. Nowadays it is about location, mobility, usability, time to market, update frequency and so many other factors. I can’t help but feel that The Times is just leapfrogging all of this subtlety on the whims of a wrinkled old CEO with a bee in his bonnet. Either way, it’s going to be an interesting experiment.

Here’s hoping the results are shared more widely than the content…

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