Killing the Paywall

Tom Goodwin’s recent article, “Why making content on the internet free was our biggest mistake… and how to fix it” is required reading for all marketers in publishing. I’ve felt this way for a long time. Mr. Goodwin only wrote it far more eloquently than I could have.

In the late ’90s I was working for a publishing company running a ~$100 million line of business. I got the task of speaking to all the Dotcom 1.0 folks (remember PointCast?) who were trying to convince us to give our content away for free. Because of “eyeballs, man.” Their plan was to get their COGS down to zero, by fooling us into giving them the raw material for their business.

My company could never figure out a business model in giving away our valuable content. So we never played the dotcom game. But we were fascinated by all the companies, including venerable names such as the New York Times, which were giving away their content. We wondered why anybody would pay if they could get it for free on the internet.

It turns out that, to date, we were right.

The outcome was worse than any of us could have predicted. We’ve built a system that’s gutted our society of proper journalists and editors. We’ve replaced those journalists with rooms full of algorithm-driven galley slaves, serving up clickbait, listicles, and low-rent junk appealing to our most base instincts. And the Silicon Valley crew has spread the propaganda that digital advertising (whatever that is) is somehow better than wasteful public media.

As expected, the marketing industry–one of magpies–bought into the delusion, dragging the big spenders in the advertising world into the digital delusion. As a result, two industries were damaged and possibly mortally wounded: publishing, and advertising.

There might be a glimmer of hope, as Mr. Goodwin suggests.

The first part of that is killing the term “paywall.”  The term implies that you’re blocking something. In reality, the payment is a sign of quality. That the content is indeed worth something. That it was created by somebody who did the hard work of creating something worthwhile.

I don’t have a term to replace “paywall” that I’m willing to share yet. But it’s going to be the marketers to do the work of convincing a lost generation that information doesn’t want to be free. (Only Zuckerberg wants to get it for free, to sell your attention to the highest, shadiest bidder.) Proper marketing will explain the value of quality content to a lost generation and build the business models that will make it work financially.

I know it can work. There are glimmers of hope. The New York Times added 197K new customers last quarter, a 81% YoY increase. 3.8 million people pay for their digital products now, including me.

It seems some people are peeking out of their social media-induced rabbit holes, looking for something more than a Buzzfeed list or celebrity toe fungus articles. Take the opportunity to build something better, before we lose journalism and publishing forever to the likes of PewDiePie.

Marketers: If the Times can do it, you can do it. You just have to try, because it won’t be easy.

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