Paywalls v. free: climbing onto the fence

When I worked at the Guardian from 2001-2006, I was a fully paid-up member of the Make it Free posse. I even co-wrote a document (with my very clever colleague Stephen Dunn) entitled Guardian Everywhere, which postulated a strategy designed to make Guardian content available everywhere and anywhere, supported by advertising. We came up with the buzz-acronym P.A.D (Permanent, Addressable, Discoverable) to describe how we saw the Guardian as this completely open platform, its articles and photos and graphics available to all and sundry – accompanied, it was hoped, by a revenue-generating advertisement.

Were we wrong? Well, David Hepworth thinks we were. To be fair, he’s always thought we were. His latest post on the subject says this:

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I’ve been saying for years that some of the people who make airy predictions about new digital business models should leave the security of their banker-funded old media empires and try to walk the walk they’ve been talking for so long. Andrew Sullivan, probably the biggest political blogger in the English-speaking world, has announced that this is what he’s doing. From February 1st his full output will only be available for the payment of a $20 annual subscription.

I’m sure Sullivan’s people know all the tricks to ensure that as many as possible of his millions of followers pay the sub. If an old magazine hand may offer an observation to someone entering the real world of trying to part private citizens from the actual cash money in their pocket (in which of course the proprietor of your local car wash knows more than the cleverest person in the Groucho club) it would be this.

Many of your followers will disappear with a wooshing sound the moment you even hint at charging. A noisy minority will fall over themselves to give you their money and will make sure everyone knows they are doing it. An argumentative minority will hang around to complain that what you’re doing is a) morally wrong and b) bad business practice.

Don’t worry about any of these groups. The people you have to worry about are the ones who fully intend to subscribe, in some cases think they already do subscribe, but never actually get round to it. They’re the ones.

As more and more of these subscription services come along – and as more and more free, open services like the Guardian’s struggle against high costs and stubbornly slow-rising revenues – I begin to ask myself: was I wrong? Was Hepworth always right? Is the only way to make money off content to sell it, as near as dammit directly, to the consumer? Is there nothing to replace good old diligent, careful and skilful subscriber management?

I admit I don’t know. I’ve lost that old certainty. And perhaps that’s all that needs to be said. I’m back on the fence, waiting for proof either way. But what really bothers me is that there might be a third way, and it was a third way which a good number of people pointed out very early on. That third way sees the rapid demise of all the old media, and the emergence of brand new things with low costs, new approaches and disregard for these debates about business models. Things like Buzzfeed and Reddit and, yes, Andrew Sullivan’s paid-for Daily Dish. Maybe you can’t get there from here, after all. Maybe if you’re here, you’re already dead.

I really hope that isn’t the case. But….

1848

South London Post: July 2010 update

So, back from a week’s holiday and now’s the time to do the monthly update on the South London Post, my “meta-local” publishing project which I blogged about at length last month.

First of all, the realities of micro-publishing. Taking a week’s holiday means your site shuts down, and I can’t tell you how profoundly dissatisfied I’ve been about that. Doesn’t sit right at all. Perhaps I can do something about that some day.

Which leads to the second point. As I said in my original post, this has been deliberately and aggressively a part-time project. I only do about an hour a day of posting, and I am beginning to realise how inadequate this is. I still haven’t covered a council meeting, nor do I have time to read all the council docs I should be reading from the three boroughs I’m covering. Of which more in a bit.

So how did the site do in July? Well, here’s the numbers:

southlondonpostanalytics_july2010.jpg

Which means (drum roll please) I’ve doubled page views on the June number, and broken through the thousand visits in a month barrier. I now only need to increase my page views by a factor of 500 to reach my target of a million pages in a month. And AdSense revenue has exploded by a factor of over 150 to reach…. $1.88. I’m going to go and buy myself a Diet Coke.

So why the page view increase? Well, mainly, it’s just profile, but two things are definitely occurring. As I said last month, I was going to tweet every new blog post this month, and I’ve done so. twitter.com was responsible for 13% of all referrals, while a third of all referrals were “direct”, which is always a frustratingly opaque measure but I assume includes a fair number of non-browser clients such as Twitter apps.

Secondly, Google really kicked in as a referrer this month, as more people started to link to the site and more indexing took place. There are now 64 incoming links to the site, although a lot of these are on Twitter. There still aren’t many links with Google currency coming in. Are you listening, BBC News? Guardian? Anyone?

August is likely to be pretty quiet, not least because I’ve been off for a week, but I’ll round this stuff up again at the end of the month. As I said last month, I’m trying to do one operational thing a month to drive traffic to try and gauge its impact. July was about Twitter. In August I’ll systematise that a bit, probably using a plugin such as Twitter Tools. I’m also going to begin a two-month experiment with SEM, to see if I can drive traffic and at what cost.

And finally, as promised, a word about the time spent on the site. I’m only using up about an hour a day at present. And it really isn’t enough. That allows me to read through all my feeds (which, including Twitter updates, probably about to about 600 new items a day), check interesting stories, write maybe four or five posts and read the occasional council document.

I still haven’t attended a single council meeting, phoned a single councillor or press officer, or chased down a single story. It’s very much using the “web as a wire feed”, rewriting for style and maintenance of narrative threads, finding a picture, and go. I believe that adds some value, but it isn’t enough.

Now, quite a few bloggers and newshounds already attend council meetings in Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark, so what value can I add there? Well, maybe a more systematic, Hansard-like approach to covering proceedings, although I have to say that judging by the coverage so far public council meetings (including cabinet meetings) seem more like platforms for grandstanding than arena for debate. But in any case a Hansard-like approach is going to be time-consuming. I’m talking to some people about a way of approaching that.

I think thereal value can be added by examining documents: minutes for meetings, supporting documents, discussion files, stuff like that. This has already yielded some good stuff on the site: a post about crime in Lambeth with some juicy stats, and the very revealing discussion document about Lewisham cuts. I’m using Google Docs to store public versions of these documents, and over time that could be a useful resource. I think that’s where I’m going to focus my journalistic efforts – such as they are – in the coming couple of months.

So, enough prognosticating. Time to go and find some stuff out. See you back here in a month.

What’s Really Going on Behind Murdoch’s Paywall?

What’s Really Going on Behind Murdoch’s Paywall?:

“My sources say that not only is nobody subscribing to the website, but subscribers to the paper itself—who have free access to the site—are not going beyond the registration page. It’s an empty world.

The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: ‘What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realization. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can’t even share a link and they aren’t on search. It’s as though their writers don’t exist anymore.’’ “

FT Planning Off-Shoot Digital Finance News Site

FT Planning Off-Shoot Digital Finance News Site:

Something’s brewing at fttilt.com. Over the weekend, Pearson (NYSE: PSO) folk tweeted the URL to invite applications for what will be a new offshoot of the main FT.com site.

According to the site:-

‘FT Tilt is a new online service from the Financial Times, launching later this year.

‘It is led by the same team that developed FT Alphaville, the multi-award winning financial blog, and promises a similar blend of lively news and analysis for a specialist audience of finance professionals.

‘This is a start-up venture under the FT’s umbrella. As such it offers frontline experience in developing a new digital media service from scratch.’

Workflow is important: Lewis proves it

Confirmed: News Int. Picks Lewis To Integrate Workflow:

The new role of general manager re-unites Will Lewis with former Telegraph Media Group chief technology officer Paul Cheesbrough, who is joining News Int. in the same role.

Though Lewis is being given management oversight to ‘coordinate editorial spending’ across all four of News Corp’s UK news titles generally, the post also makes him one of their most senior executives for digital technology strategy (though no one person leads ‘digital’ in its entirety nowadays)…

In group-wide digital, News International is now tasking Lewis with ‘implementing a next generation of editorial technology that will support the production of content across a range of digital distribution platforms’. Sounds like code for some degree of newsroom ‘integration’…

So wait for Lewis and Cheesbrough to announce which platforms they will use to accomplish this and how many, if any, jobs will go as a result…

(Via paidContent:UK.)

Associated Northcliffe Digital is no more

Another DMGT Rejig: AND Killed Off, CEO Titus Leaving:

Richard Titus

Daily Mail (LSE: DMGT) & General Trust is to dissolve its standalone consumer digital arm, Associated Northcliffe Digital, in a cost-cutting move that will result in job losses and the departure of chief executive Richard Titus.

Titus, who joined DMGT from the BBC just over a year ago, has stood down with immediate effect but will continue work on a consultancy basis until the end of November.

(Via paidContent:UK.)

Telegraph goes with Disqus and BuddyPress for communities

Our solution has been to plug the Telegraph’s own registration system into two platforms, one of which powers comments across Telegraph.co.uk and the other gives every reader a profile and the option to set up a blog, join discussion groups and create a network of other readers. This same registration system allows readers to sign up for various Telegraph services, including email newsletters and our subscriber website, and this expanding all the time. For comments we have partnered with Disqus, a terrific start up based in San Francisco which impressed not only because of the range of tools on offer but also because of their understanding of the dynamics of conversations on the web.

Reader profiles, blogs and discussion groups are now built in BuddyPress, a platform that adds social networking features (such as profiles) to WordPress MU. Last summer we moved our journalists’ blogs to WordPress so in many ways this was a natural extension of that project for us. A development team here at the Telegraph have now built on the excellent work of Andy Peatling and the BuddyPress team and created a version of BuddyPress specifically for our readers.

via Telegraph communities: the arrival of Disqus and BuddyPress – Telegraph Blogs.

Le Monde acquired

Its supervisory board voted to select a consortium – Pierre Bergé, an arts patron and partner of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, banker Matthieu Pigasse, and internet tycoon Xavier Niel, described by some newspapers as a “porn billionaire” – to begin talks to take financial control, though they have promised that the journalists will have editorial freedom.

In return, Le Monde is promised an injection of €100m to repay debts and invest in a future which will be dominated by the growth of news and comment over the internet – the trio also say they want to integrate the paper with its website.

via ‘Dinosaur’ Le Monde Agrees To Takeover To Save It From Bankruptcy | paidContent.

Can publishers get back into classifieds?

Newsonomics thinks they can: by something he calls “commercial crowdsourcing,” and the example given is PlaceLocal:

In a nutshell, PlaceLocal creates instant ads for a business, drawn from the best of the available information out there on the web — photos, user reviews, basic address, phone, hours, menus.

It gives publishers — TimeOut, Hearst TV, and McClatchy are three of the first companies testing it — the ability to create ads on the fly, spec ’em out and use their sales staffs to do the selling. Victor Wong, one of the young geniuses behind the PaperG’s innovation — its first product, FlyerBoard, simply updated for the digital age the old notion of the ubiquitous kiosk flyers found around college campuses — tells me he thinks PlaceLocal will be a bigger product. It should sell for a higher rate, and that’s what his publisher customers are hoping. Initial rates — we’re talking about smaller businesses which aren’t frequent advertisers — run in the hundreds up to a thousand dollars monthly. That $1,000 target would more than double the pricing of the FlyerBoard product, a key in PaperG’s growth plan as the company of a dozen plus leaves the friendly confines of New Haven for Silicon Valley North, San Francisco.

via The Newsonomics of Commercial Crowdsourcing | Newsonomics.

Le Monde on Le Ropes

Le Monde is staring oblivion in the face, and this post by Frederic Filloux is pretty gimlet-eyed in its analysis:

What does Le Monde need now? Four things (at least).

A project. Both editorial and industrial. Editorially speaking, Le Monde needs to turn up its competitive metabolism, to muscle sections such as the business coverage, and to better integrate its website in a strategically planned approach of the news.

A restructuring. Assets such as the magazine Telerama have to be sold (as long as there is a buyer). The printing plant will have to be shut down and the print load transferred to Le Figaro which has built a modern facility that can handle Le Monde print run.

A decisive human resources initiative. Like in every newsroom, there are huge imbalances in the staff workloads, which creates frustration and bitterness. On average, a journalist at Le Monde works 15% to 20% less than its counterpart at the Guardian or El Pais. This has to be adjusted through a fair (but delicate) labor negotiation. Actually, the Prisa group wanted to address this issue rather bluntly.

A long term approach. In any case, Le Monde’s renovation will take years. On this aspect, Claude Perdriel’s bid is not particularly appealing; at 84, he is not likely to stay at the top for long, and after him lies an uncertain future — especially when the restructuring will require additional funding. The Niel-Bergé-Pigasse team claims to have more of a long term approach (and deeper pockets). As long as it is able to refrain from using Le Monde to push political agendas or careers, as long as the newsroom can be protected against conflicts of interest – and that’s two big ifs – their bid could bring a more stable future for Le Monde.

via Le Monde on The Brink | Monday Note.