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Thoughts on Paywalls, and Why I Want My Content From Whole Foods

January 19, 2010

When it comes to the decline of traditional media, I’ve found myself caught in an interesting tug-of-war between two camps. On one hand, I spent the majority of my career working for a traditional media company battling the disruptive effects of the Web. I watched talented colleagues — who I believe by all measures serve society well by being paid to create dynamic content for us to read, watch or listen to —  get laid off or leave the industry when it was clear other work wouldn’t present itself. Others have stayed and endured, and I admire them for their resilience.

On the other, I’ve become an advocate for social technologies and free user-generated publishing tools that have lowered the threshold for participation and enabled new, innovative content sources to crop up all over the Web. My comfort with these technologies — knowing that I can publish or post or share whenever I want, whether as a consumer or inside business — increased my willingness to try something new and break away from my traditional media roots.

But increasingly, as we consider the issue of traditional media organizations erecting paywalls or whether they should be indexed on Google, the arguments on both sides tire me. The Old Media protectors, right now led publicly by Rupert Murdoch, are the wrong spokespeople. I’ve always appreciated Murdoch’s hawkish tenacity on the part of newspapers, and he has deep pockets to engage in battles. But Murdoch and his disciples lack the pragmatism to face some brutish realities. His organizations will have to be smaller, less profitable, nimbler and more focused on specific areas of content. Gone are the days of the one-stop newspaper and large newsrooms. Worse, the sales guys who run these organizations are liquidating their companies because they keep cutting the areas that create community influence (content) that make their advertising valuable in the first place.

And then, conversely, with the New Media Elite (NME), it’s striking how they’re just as unimaginative. Saying that paywalls are stupid and that Google owes content creators nothing is a safe, but remarkably glib, statement. They’re big on pointing out obvious trends of disruption, but aren’t willing to concede what’s being lost — and that what’s being lost is worth lamenting.

We all agree — old media is dying! Congratulations!

So let’s stop talking about that.

The real question that’s bigger than the existence or survival of these organizations is how important is it to have people in our society whose sole job it is to create content? And moreover, how important is the institutional backing they have? What weight does that backing have on the ability to create content that enacts change and holds powers-that-be accountable?

What NME doesn’t want to admit is that this question of status still matters a lot. It’s not status we can vote up a page, but status that was decided years ago.

I’d be the first to tell you that it’s great when we can get an amazing collection of information from citizens on Twitter (like in Iran), or that a YouTube video can sway votes in an election. But when it comes to holding government and powerbrokers accountable, the success and failures of mainstream media still matters a great deal. Access, name and money is important in forcing your way into high-level conversations. Despite my love of social and new media, I think a deep dive by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker matters more than someone who blogs on national security issues, but never talks to a general or an intelligence agent and just tees up reactions to things he sees on FoxNews.

Without another revenue stream other than ads, the successful new media entities will suffer eventually, too. The democratization of publishing has been to their detriment as well. Even winners from the first wave like TechCrunch have admitted that the evolution towards shorter, fast food content will mean that no one can take the time to do deeper dives because it’s not economically feasible to do so.

It will be worse at the local level. While a community blogger who covers town government can be influential, he or she probably has a day job. For my money, it’s comforting to have someone whose SOLE job it is to monitor those entities all day. As we know, many journalists get tied up in the culture and become part of the institution themselves (see: the arrogant and lazy Washington press corp, or a financial press that slept on the job and didn’t call out an oncoming crisis), but the alternative to not having them at all should be chilling.

Does this mean more non-profit news organizations? Or that Google should subsidize the lives of journalists? Maybe. Maybe not. But in my mind, it boils down to a simple question that all of us must consider before we come up with a solution: How valuable is compensating people to research and write quality content, and at a certain point, are we willing to pay for it?

I think the answer is yes, but unfortunately it will only be for some of us (educated, affluent and white collar), who view it as intellectually worthwhile and aren’t enamored by the idea of an information revolution and flattening of hierarchy enough to do away with traditional reporting mechanisms altogether. We want our content from Whole Foods, not McDonald’s. This isn’t just an Old Media argument. There are new independent players and bloggers creating Whole Foods content in all forms (from video to podcasts to writing), and we should be willing to support them as well and let their names become more prominent.

Paywall or not, these traditional organizations will never be large again. A paywall is necessary, but it will be painful for them. It will shrink these organizations even more. But ultimately, it could let the content creators rise to power, which would pay dividends. What we’d lose in quantity of stories and reporters would be made up for tenfold in the quality.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2010 11:36 pm

    I question just one opinion you’ve shared in this articulate post, Chris. You suggest that there aren’t any representatives of the new/online only media capable of holding “powerbrokers” accountable in the following:

    I’d be the first to tell you that it’s great when we can get an amazing collection of information from citizens on Twitter (like in Iran), or that a YouTube video can sway votes in an election. But when it comes to holding government and powerbrokers accountable, the success and failures of mainstream media still matters a great deal. Access, name and money is important in forcing your way into high-level conversations. Despite my love of social and new media, I think a deep dive by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker matters more than someone who blogs on national security issues, but never talks to a general or an intelligence agent and just tees up reactions to things he sees on FoxNews.

    I can think of at least three online-only publications that do great reporting and journalism that helps hold powerbrokers accountable: The Smoking Gun, Politico and in their own industry, TechCrunch.

    Let’s give new/online media and the reporters who work for those organizations the credit they deserve!

  2. January 19, 2010 11:42 pm

    I definitely agree. I guess I meant that going down the independent route — it’s harder for them to get access, and as such, the ability to hold certain folks accountable is harder. I also think the example I gave here of the blogger teeing up cable news stuff in his basement is a weak, or hackneyed, example on my part.

    What’s also interesting about the great examples you cited, Meridith, is at which point do those become established, “old” media players? I think TechCrunch now is, as Arrington’s fast food post revealed.

  3. January 20, 2010 8:26 am

    I finally had the chance to finish reading this entire post (outside of an iPhone screen) and wholly agree with you. Accountability standards are slowly dissolving — our culture rewards those who break a story first.

    You fight for well-researched and intelligent information, sans paywall or not. As do I. But we face an exponential growth of aggregated content. Unfortunately, the prolific Editor title is gradually turning into one of a ‘Content Curator’ who simply compiles, organizes and pushes out what he/she deems topical, important, or trending. :: Shudder :: I’d gladly handover my money to the Helen Thomas’s of the world who ask the tough questions than rely on algorithmic search results for news.

    Beyond the journalism world, analysts are facing the same dilemma. GigaOM Pro seems to be doing a fine job so far in offering informed opinions and deeper dives at a relatively low rate. Wonder how they’ll fare later this year.

    Thanks for making my blood boil (in a good way).

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