While this change is great in that it recognizes the importance of the passer-by reader, it does present a challenge in the sense that most online readers fall into this category – so what kind of money can they get from charging for this content in the first place? As others have noted, it isn’t even as if they’re charging for content now, just for the ability to use their site navigation. In other words, they want to kill their section front traffic, but keep their story-by-story page views.
The Times’ Opinionator Blog even grudgingly admits this seems like a bit of a back-off. No surprise, of course, a NYT writer thinks the metered paywall is a good idea, but he realizes that online readers do not simply navigate to a newspaper site to peruse the news, they get their news from a combination of search, aggregators (including their own RSS readers) and recommendations from friends. If this trend continues and these sort of readers increase in number (which they will, as this is the preferred newsreading method of my generation and those younger), this porous paywall thingie doesn’t look much like a revenue model at all. It’s half-assed at best.
Which begs to mind the real question: Did the Times even really think this out? They made all kinds of big news when they first announced the metered paywall last week to all kinds of old-school-media backpats, but then they started immediately backpedaling.
It’s made me wonder if they really had a firm grasp of what they sought to accomplish – audience and revenue-wise, with this plan from the get-go. I have to wonder, how much more will it change before it is implemented? And why did they announce this plan when they don’t seem to be very cognizant of what it will be or what they want out of it?
Jay Rosen hosts something of a debate about all of this on his blog. I suggest a read through the comments for a good look at what the reaction’s been to all of this re-jiggering.
This week, for some reason, Gawker is suddenly Public Enemy #1 to the online media world. It seems to be because they’re doing pretty well when it comes to online revenue and they do it largely by blogging about the news researched by other sources.
The reason it’s suddenly a big deal is that a writer at the Washington Post, Ian Shapira, finally decided to throw a (well-written) snit about Gawker blogging about one of their pieces. Shapira charges that Gawker infringed on the copyright of his work because so much of their post was derived from his story.
Gawker’s post quoted heavily from the source’s quotes in the Post story in fact, slightly more than half of their very short post was from the WaPo story. The Nieman Journalism Lab took a look at what was used and asked it’s readers if they thought Gawker violated Fair Use or fell well within its guidelines. The comments are well worth a full read, as they really put the heart of the debate right out there:
1. The Gawker post clearly qualifies as Fair Use. Commenter Justin reminds us that the code states that content use “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Comment and criticism – what else is Gawker if not that?
2. Despite Shapira’s claims to the contrary, the Post did get credit. Sure, Gawker could have said it came from the post before the end – but they gave them something far more valuable. They linked to the original story – several times in fact. As commenter (and excellent young blogger) Cody Brown says, in the online world, that’s the best credit you can get.
3. Was the Post damaged by it? Hardly. Shapira noted that Gawker was the #2 referrer on the web to his story and likely contributed quite a few new readers to an otherwise mundane story that may not have had a lot of legs online otherwise.
4. Who owns the quotes from the source anyway? If Gawker should cut the post a check for quoting their piece and selling ads around it (which the WaPo writer suggests in jest), what does the Post owe their original source for selling ads around her quotes? (And furthermore, does reporting count as aggregation, too?)
I really question why Shapira’s editor even let him write that follow-up charging that Gawker stole from his work. Does Shapira really have a background that makes him knowledgeable enough about these sticky issues of fair use and media law that he can make claims that even experienced media lawyers aren’t altogether clear on? Also, how many of the Post’s online readers even care about this issue? You know who cares to hear about how much work Shapira put into this everyday story only to have it “ripped off” by big, bad blogs? Journalists. That’s about it.
How much of this whole debate – not just the WaPo v. Gawker, but the whole blogs/aggregators vs. old media – is based in old-fashioned jealousy? Chris Krewson, editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, said this to me on Twitter: “Aren’t we at least a little annoyed that Gawker and the aggies are faring well, ad-wise?”
Yes, I think we are. Gawker’s media sales have shot up this year. Ad revenues are up 45% year-over-year for the first six months of 2009 – and their production costs fall way below that of a newspaper. But isn’t that just good competition?
Maybe we just need to be better.
Here are more related posts about the whole Gawker debate you may find interesting:
Gawker’s Link Etiquette (or Lack Thereof) : CJR – An interesting look at Gawker’s linking habits. As the CJR notes, what they do falls within existing Fair Use guidelines and they DO link to the original piece – just way, way down in the story. I don’t agree with the practice, but I also don’t think we need a law that makes Gawker link to the original higher in the story.
David Marburger took his show on the road this week with a much-emailed guest editorial in the LA Times titled “The free ride that’s killing the news business” (again with the hostile wording). Of course, I got this emailed to be from no less than 20 fellow journalists, all of whom seemed to not understand the online news business at large. He’s preaching to the choir of the same “stay the course” news people who got us here in the first place – and they love it.
Marburger tells and retells the story of the Little Red Hen in all of his appearances. Have you read it yet?
Remember the Little Red Hen? She’s the one in the folk tale who asks the other barnyard animals if they will help her cut the wheat, grind it into flour and bake the bread. They refuse. But when the warm bread emerges from the oven, they are eager to help the hen eat it.
Now let’s suppose the story continues, with the Little Red Hen opening a roadside stand to sell her bread. Instead of merely eating it themselves, the cow, the pig and the dog each take some of her loaves and open competing roadside stands. Vying for sales, they undercut her price and each others’. Because the Little Red Hen bore all the costs to produce the bread, and the other animals bore none, she can’t afford to match their prices, and they drive her out of business.
Newspaper sites are supposed to be the hen. He likens aggregator sites like Newser.com to the other animals.
To anyone that isn’t in the news business, this sounds pretty acceptable. After all, isn’t the point of competition in a free market supposed to mean that you try to undersell your competition by having a lower overhead? It’s called good business. Too bad for the Little Red Hen – maybe she should become a manufacturer or wholesaler instead of a shop owner.
To whose that aren’t familiar, Newser.com is a worldwide wholesaler of other people’s news, in a sense. They summarize stories from many news sources in a paragraph or so and link back to the original story. As you can see here, they state on each summary where the source is and link to it. Sure, it could stand to be more prominent, but it’s better than what TV does every day. (It should also be pointed out that site looks dreadful and isn’t very user-friendly)
Marburger claims that sites like Newser are “free riding” on newspapers and it should be illegal. From the poll on the editorial, which asks “Should websites be allowed to use excerpts from daily news sites?” the populace doesn’t agree (it’s 68% against the Marburger plan, 32% for it as I write).
The basis for the Marburger argument is that sites like Newser are driving down online advertising rates because they aggregate content and surround it with low-priced ads. He calls them “competitors”. He says they are “direct substitutes for newspapers”.
First of all, if your story can be summarized in a paragraph and that’s honestly enough for a casual reader to know about it – it probably isn’t worth fighting about. Secondly, Newser isn’t a competitor with the newspaper websites it links to. A quick look at Alexa shows how their traffic compares to the likes of the two Times, Tribune and Guardian:
Newser ranks way, way below the big news sites in terms of page views.
While I agree that advertising is the issue – it isn’t the fault of aggregators. It’s that the entire business model for online advertising is broken. As Bill Grueskin said last month in an excellent paidContent analysis, “Aggregators are more a distraction from the real crisis than the cause of it” because even if they are siphoning off users (of course, they also refer users), it isn’t really hurting the bottom line.
Online ad rates have been artificially low for years. We’re partly to blame – after all, most newspaper have been online since the 90s and we never charged for online ads what they are worth. Furthermore, the online audience doesn’t like and doesn’t see value in online ads. They block them, they don’t click on them, they HATE them.
CPMs are so low that thousands upon thousands of views to our site today won’t even buy lunch for our newsroom, let alone sustain the industry. Grueskin says what a lot of us in online news have been whispering for years – why are we measuring our worth in page views anyway? We should be using metrics like page views per user or time on site rather than by the number of people visiting the site, “many of whom may not assign any value to the journalists who generated the content”.
In other words, better understand the audience, seek out what it wants, determine what we can provide – possibly in terms of a premium service – and find a way to monetize that outside of online ads. That’s something an operation like Newser could never do and it actually provides a sustainable plan for future growth. Crazy, I know.
So why do we have to keep giving face time to David Marburger and his ilk of “stay the course” followers who want to legislate their way out of an adaptation of the business model. Let’s get to the task at hand…
Marburger cites sites like the Daily Beast rather than aggregators as the real enemy. He believes a law is necessary to make it so they can’t write up a similar online piece based on the facts originally reported elsewhere. There’s been all kinds of claims as to why this is a problem:
1. These sites drive down online ad rates and free-ride on original reporting to make money. My take: They aren’t making much money from advertising, for one. Secondly, if they can charge a better ad rate, it’s called undercutting the competition – something that is quite legal and encouraged in American business. We might not like the outcome when it doesn’t benefit us, but it doesn’t make it illegal.
2. The newer stories get better placement on Google because they look like the same story and are newer. I say: Then get your site better optimized for search engines. If these sites have better placement, then good for them for being good at SEO. The reason big online news sites have bad SEO is because we move stories around, discontinue link availability after a certain amount of time and run buggy scripts that goof up our sites. They’re doing better because they worked at it – also, not illegal.
3. They are taking content wholesale. Again, I ask – who are the Marburgers, newspapers or the law to determine how much of this rewriting is illegal and who it applies to? I work at an online news site much like that of the PD and we rewrite existing online stories all of the time. I’ll bet they do too. We put ads on these stories and make money off of them – are we the enemy? Or just the new players in online media?
Maybe I’m misrepresenting their plan – but it isn’t for lack of trying. I’ve read the whole thing and all of David Marburger’s explanations of it. They say it isn’t an assault on free market competition, but then make statements that seem to say exactly that.
I won’t back your silly plan as it stands now – and no self-respecting journalist should. Eliminating competition isn’t a fix for newspapers’ ills and it’s downright disgusting how it is being peddled to the not-very-savvy journos among us who are desperately looking to back a magic cure-all.
Our industry was built on competition and the free marketplace of ideas. So, let’s pull ’em up, shall we? Get out there and innovate ourselves a future instead of crying to the principal about how some new kid is stealing our lunch money.
Think Again: The End of Local Reporting? – Eric Alterman examines great works of hyperlocal watchdog journalism – and why it would be bad to lose that resource. A great read for this member of the choir.
Top 5 Paid Models Worth Watching :: MinOnline – I’m a broken record when it comes to pay walls – I think they’re bad news. When they do work, however, is when you offer premium digital content in cool new ways. Check out these models that could work for newspapers.
MediaShift . Newspapers Try Again with Local Blog Networks – Working with external bloggers as part of a content-sharing agreement or blogging network is hardly a new idea – we’ve been building a blog network for about the last year at the Enquirer – but it may be a necessary one for shrinking news staffs.
What do you think will be the role for professional journalists in this rapidly approaching future we keep hearing so much about? Will the bloggers have taken over? Will there be any real reporting left?
I, for one, fully believe that the world needs journalists. Not just writers and reporters and photographers – but editors as well. We need these editors to determine what’s legitimate in a world of information overload.
Technologist and Big Thinker Steven Berlin Johnson put it pretty well when he spoke at SXSW last week and I felt it needs to be shared with the naysayers and doomsday theorists who believe we should all start training to be nurses.
In his address, he notes how much the availability and speed of content has vastly improved since even the late 80s – and he expects that to only continue with the continuing rise of hyperlocal news and citizen journalism.
Sure, it won’t be all done by professional journalists. Sadly, a lot of us won’t be journalists long enough to see this age of information equality. But there will still be news – and noise. While savvy news consumers will be able to sort through this mass of information for the information most relevant to them – there will be too much to handle for many (if not most).
Let’s say they need some kind of authoritative guide, to help them find all the useful information that’s proliferating out there in the wild. If only there were some institution that had a reputation for journalistic integrity that had a staff of trained editors and a growing audience arriving at its web site every day seeking quality information. If only…
Of course, we have thousands of these institutions. They’re called newspapers.
Isn’t that a great thought? We should be editing content – even if we aren’t always the ones producing it. We’re in the process of doing this right now at the Enquirer in the form of aggregating off-site local content from unaffiliated blogs and news sites. We’re making our site a destination for all of the best local news – hand-picked by our editors.
So stop your bellyaching already – we might still be here just yet.