You might look at it as the arrival of podcasts as a big business. My fear about what it really means is that the golden age of podcasts is coming to an end.
Anne Steele of The Wall Street Journal (one of our great Northeastern journalism graduates, by the way) reports on the looming podcast war between Apple, Spotify and a few smaller players. It sounds like it’s going to be just like video streaming services — if you subscribe to Spotify, as I do, you won’t be able to listen to podcasts that are exclusively on Apple, and vice-versa.
Steele quotes a business analyst named Daniel Ives as saying this about Apple:
Even though they have the keys to the kingdom in terms of overall customer base and the App Store and broader content, what’s going to differentiate them is not just aggregation, it’s exclusive content.
Just what we need — another walled garden. And look, I’m glad that this will enable podcasters to make some money beyond the ad revenue they get from the likes of MailChimp and Dollar Shave. But it also represents the end of something special — just as the rise of paywalls about a dozen years ago ended the open web.
The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is hardening its paywall. Currently you can access seven stories a month before you are asked to pay. Now the T&G, as well as other Gannett papers, is going to remove “investigative stories, political commentary, sports analysis and other content found only on telegram.com.” More routine stories and public-safety coverage will remain within the seven-story allotment.
Look, I get it. But what I don’t like about this is that there are those of us who might need to download two or three stories a year from various papers around the country. Last year, I actually took out a subscription to an out-of-state paper for a month — and then had to call several times so I could cancel it after the reporting project I was working on was done.
I’ve long thought papers ought to be flexible enough to charge for $1 an article or to sell day passes to people for whom a monthly digital subscription doesn’t make sense. But I’ve been told it’s not cost-effective, as it would be difficult to set up and could take away from subscription sales.
I also hope that whatever extra money the company pulls in will be used for journalism and not to service Gannett’s massive debt.
Is this a new golden age of journalism? It all depends on who’s getting the gold.
For consumers of news, these are the best of times. Thanks to the Internet, we are awash in quality journalism, from longstanding bastions of excellence such as The New York Times and The Guardian to start-ups that are rising above their disreputable roots such as BuzzFeed and Vice News.
For producers of news, though, the challenge is to find new ways of paying for journalism at a time when advertising appears to be in terminal decline.
The optimistic and pessimistic views got an airing recently in a pair of point/counterpoint posts. Writing in Wired, Frank Rose gave the new smartphone-driven media ecosystem a thumbs up, arguing that mobile — rather than leading to shorter attention spans — has actually helped foster long-form journalism and more minutes spent reading in-depth articles. Rose continued:
Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting.
That Rose-colored assessment brought a withering retort from Andrew Leonard of Salon, who complained that Rose never even mentioned the difficulties of paying for all that wonderful journalism.
“The strangest thing about Rose’s piece is that there isn’t a single sentence that discusses the economics of the journalism business,” Leonard wrote, adding: “If you are lucky, you might be able to command a freelance pay rate that hasn’t budged in 30 years. But more people than ever work for nothing.”
To support his argument, Leonard linked to a recent essay on the self-publishing platform Medium by Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about Internet culture. Shirky, author of the influential 2009 blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” as well as books such as “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus,” predicted that advertising in print newspapers is about to enter its final death spiral. That’s because Sunday inserts are about to follow classified ads and many types of display ads into the digital-only world, where retailers will be able to reach their customers in a cheaper, more targeted way. Here’s how Shirky put it:
It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place.
There’s no question that print will eventually go away, though it may survive for a few more years as a high-priced specialty product for people who are willing to pay for it. The dilemma of how to pay for journalism, though, is not going away.
Free online news supported solely by advertising has not proven to be a reliable business model, although there are exceptions, including a few well-managed hyperlocals, like The Batavian in western New York, and sites that draw enormous audiences while employing very few people, like The Huffington Post.
It may turn out that the most reliable path for journalism in the digital age is the nonprofit model, with foundations, wealthy individuals and small donors picking up the tab. It’s a model that has worked well for public television and radio, and that is currently supporting online news organizations both large (ProPublica) and small (the New Haven Independent). But nonprofits are hardly a panacea. The pool of nonprofit money available for journalism is finite, and in any case the IRS has made it difficult for news organizations to take advantage of nonprofit status, as I wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013.
Journalism has never been free. Someone has always paid for it, whether it was department stores taking out ads in the Sunday paper or employers buying up pages and pages of help-wanted ads in the classifieds. Today, the most pressing question for journalists isn’t whether we are living in another golden age. Rather it’s something much blunter: Who will pay?
There’s a bit of non-baseball news at the end of Boston Globe baseball reporter Peter Abraham’s latest:
Finally, a programming note. All our written content will be exclusively in the Globe and on BostonGlobe.com from now on. That includes Nick Cafardo, Dan Shaughnessy, Chris Gasper, Julian Benbow and me. The Extra Bases blog on Boston.com will not have contributions from Globe baseball reporters.
The move is in accord with an announcement recently made by Globe editor Brian McGrory, so it’s not really a surprise — more of a confirmation. With the Globe’s online paywall a lot leakier than it used to be, there’s really no need for cross-platform sharing anymore.
Earlier today Media Nation obtained a copy of a message from Sean Burke, president and group publisher of GateHouse Media New England, announcing that GateHouse will experiment with metered paywalls at three of its daily papers — The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, The Enterprise of Brockton and The Milford Daily News. At a fourth daily, The Herald News of Fall River, the company will try a premium/freemium model.
GateHouse Media, based in suburban Rochester, N.Y., owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, most of them weeklies. The full text of Burke’s message follows.
Gatehouse Mass. dailies going to “metered model”:
To: All GateHouse Media New England Employees
From: Sean Burke
Re: The Meters Are Here!
Today we are pleased to announce that we are under taking a very important and strategic step in the future of our business by introducing tactics to eliminate unlimited free access to our content.
For years now, it’s bothered me that we essentially undervalue the efforts of our hardworking journalists by giving away their content free on our websites. Plus, we do everything we can to drive people to our free content, through social media, promotions and more. On the circulation side the cannibalization of our own best efforts is clear to see: We ask people to pay for our print publications, while increasingly pointing them toward digital, where they can consume most if not all of the print content free.
We have been providing this value to readers and visitors for years, free of charge, and at the detriment of our core business, our paid print publications. As increasing numbers of readers choose digital options to satisfy their news and information needs, the circulation of our newspapers continues to trend downward.
No more. Today begins a paid content strategy on three of our daily newspaper sites:
MetroWestDailyNews.com, MilfordDailyNews.com and Enterprisenews.com. These sites will test what is called a “metered model.” Users will have access to 15 free articles each month. After reaching the limit, they will trigger a prompt that will give them a variety of payment options to allow them to continue to access content. We’re starting the meter high – allowing a higher level of free content – then we will begin to lower it, testing along the way, to find the optimum level. As always, readers can view an unlimited number of exclusive breaking news stories and community features on the home page, as well as enjoying full access to obituaries, section fronts and video.
In Fall River, at The Herald News, we’ll be testing a different model, which we refer to as “freemium/premium.” This model capitalizes upon the differing levels of consumption and engagement by our readers through versioning. We’ll continue to offer plenty of content to our more casual readers, but it will be just the basics of stories. We’ll ask readers who want a richer, more in-depth, interactive, multi-layered, and multimedia experience to join our brands as paid “members.”
In conjunction with this model we will launch a consumer loyalty and membership program, Herald News Perks, which gives “members” access to exclusive deals, contests and events beyond content.
We plan to learn a great deal from our initial venture into paid online content with these models, striving to emerge with refined approaches for what resonates in our many individual markets. Along the way, I invite your feedback on what you think works, what doesn’t and ideas for how we might continue to demonstrate the value of all of our products across all platforms.
Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory made a series of announcements earlier today about changes and appointments inside the Globe newsroom. His memo is online at Poynter. The most important news is that the Globe’s digital paywall is being lowered to allow access to 10 free articles a month before non-subscribers are asked to pay.
The spin on McGrory’s announcement is that this represents some sort of 180-degree turn. It doesn’t. It is a significant adjustment, but the Globe has been tweaking the paywall ever since its debut in the fall of 2011. About a year ago, for instance, I wrote a story for the Nieman Journalism Lab that the Globe was tightening up on social sharing in the hopes of persuading more people to pay. Now it’s moving in the other direction. But mid-course corrections have been part of the strategy from the beginning.
Not to get ahead of the story, but I wonder if the Globe’s move toward a much looser paywall might lead to the eventual abandonment of its two-site strategy — the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Yes, McGrory also announced some new appointments for Boston.com. But what’s now Boston.com content could be folded into BostonGlobe.com as free, online-only content that supplements the paid material. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have large amounts of online-only content but only one site.
A number of people I’ve talked with find the two-site strategy confusing. I have a more basic complaint: as a paying subscriber, I don’t think I should have to go to Boston.com for anything, whether it be Red Sox items or lottery numbers. It should all be on the site that I’m paying for.
McGrory’s announcement signals not a revolution but an evolution. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
Update: Gin Dumcius points out that McGrory’s memo says the two sites will remain separate and may even compete with each other. I want to emphasize that I don’t think the end of the two-site strategy is coming any time soon. I just think the machinery has been set in motion so that it might eventually make sense.
Maybe it won’t matter much — the Independent covers nothing outside of New Haven, whereas the Register offers a lot of suburban coverage. Still, this is something to keep an eye on.
Digital First chief executive John Paton has long been a critic of paywalls, as he acknowledges in this blog post. “Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic,” he writes, adding: “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”
Two quick takeaways from Jeff Bezos’ interview with The Washington Post, his first since announcing last month that he would purchase the paper for $250 million:
1. He sounds like an ink-stained wretch whining about The Huffington Post in denouncing the evils of aggregation, telling the Post’s Paul Fahri:
Even behind a paywall, Web sites can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, “Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free” from another site?
2. Despite his skepticism about paywalls in the age of aggregation, Bezos is not ready to embrace the idea of free content supported by advertising. “I’m skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece,” he said. Good thing: newspaper ad revenues are in the midst of a stunning decline, as this chart demonstrates.
So, if paywalls aren’t the answer and neither is advertising, what will work? Relentless experimentation, combined with time, resources and patience. That’s what the Amazon.com founder brings to the table.
Nicole Narea and Clifton Wang of the Yale Daily News have written a preview of “The Wired City,” which is primarily about the life and times of the New Haven Independent, an innovative online-only nonprofit news site.
At a moment when online paywalls have become one of the biggest issues debated within the news business, it’s interesting that both the Independent and its newspaper competitor, the New Haven Register, have decided to keep their sites free. Here’s what Independent founder and editor Paul Bass tells the Yale Daily News:
We need to cut down on the information apartheid. If we are going to construct a paywall, we may as well not publish. We believe in community empowerment through journalism.
Of course the Register, as a for-profit entity, has a different challenge: selling enough online advertising to justify its decision to continue giving away its news. It’s a philosophy that John Paton, chief executive of the Register’s corporate parent, the Journal Register Co., describes as “Digital First.”
Journal Register is currently in bankruptcy for the second time in four years, but is expected to re-emerge later this spring. No doubt it’s going to be painful — among other things, employees have been told they will have to reapply for their jobs, and it is far from clear how many will be rehired. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America recently had some tough words for Journal Register, reports Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business.
As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journal Lab observed last September, the re-emergence from bankruptcy will also represent the best chance for Paton — one of the most closely watched executives in the newspaper business — to prove that a digital orientation can turn around a legacy newspaper chain with a lower-revenue, lower-cost approach. Interesting times ahead.
“We’re going to start removing our in-depth Globe journalism from Boston.com, which is not a small move,” McGrory says.
The new editor describes his goal as “untangling” the paid BostonGlobe.com and the free Boston.com sites, telling Beaujon that Boston.com will feature “more social media, more community bloggers, hopefully edgier content.” Breaking news will continue to run on Boston.com, but news stories will likely be no longer than 150 words.
When Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announced in the fall of 2010 that the paper would pursue paid digital subscriptions, McGrory, then a columnist, was one of its most enthusiastic proponents (scroll down past my Q&A with Mayer).
(And by the way, we’re now up to 150 words.)
The Globe has to pay the bills, of course. I just hope McGrory and company understand how many free alternatives are out there. Even if they’re not as good as the Globe, they may prove to be good enough for those determined not to pay. An overly restrictive paywall could also trigger new competition.
I’ll make one suggestion that might help McGrory accomplish his goals while at the same time ensuring that the Globe remains part of the online conversation. The Globe’s corporate big brother, The New York Times, allows people access to 10 stories a month before the paywall kicks in.
That seems reasonable, given that anyone who wants to read the Globe regularly is going to click at least 10 times a day. I hope the Globe considers it.