Learning to Be a Good Gatekeeper
Ron Matejko's blog two weeks ago caused a bit of a stir, in its suggestion that the New York Times should not have taken down its paywall during the height of the news coverage of the Boston bombings. While I disagree with him in that particular instance, I do not disagree with the core point behind his piece: that publishers should make defending the value of their content a priority, and that taking opportunities to bring in additional income is a good and justifiable thing. Good journalism costs money; no one ever expected the Times to make its papers free when Pearl Harbor was bombed or Kennedy was shot. Why do we expect them to now?
The answer lies only partially in the "retraining" of media consumers that has gone on since the dawn of the Internet, the much-lamented decision to throw open newspaper and magazine content to the public in the mistaken belief that online ad revenues would save the day. Blame also goes to publishers not learning the lesson of iTunes and being flexible with pay options for digital content. The New York Times threw down its paywall because, in a sense, it had to, recognizing that people who came to the site, hungry for news, and hit the wall would not buy an expensive digital subscription. They would instead go to any number of other online outlets offering news about the bombings.
The New York Times painted itself into a corner by not offering a variety of ways to purchase articles, such as a la carte or one-day (or one week, or one month) subscriptions. When you plunk down money for a single print copy of a paper or magazine to read important news, you do not feel exploited—no one is forcing you to make a long-term commitment. Online, publishers need to do the same to avoid the pitfalls of an "all or nothing" scenario—especially when giving nothing would make you look like a bad public servant.
The Times seems to have learned this lesson, announcing recently its plans to allow for low-cost subscription plans including the ability to "allow readers to pay only for access to select major news stories or narrow content on politics or arts." Maybe the Boston bombings helped the paper to finally understand that there were better ways to monetize content than throwing the door all the way open—or keeping it tightly closed.