Is Paywall Dead on Arrival?

Nathan Thompson   December 20, 2010
Coroner’s Cause of Death: Paywall-itis (image via Great Beyond)

It could have been worse.  That’s likely the refrain of newspaper publishers nationwide now that the Newspaper Association of America released its most recent quarterly numbers.  The report paints a (slightly) improving picture for publishers, with overall revenues declining by the lowest rate since the first quarter of 2007.  However, these good vibes do not extend to the digital side of the house.  As the report indicates, online increases appear to be stalling, with digital recording its smallest increase in the last several quarters.

Not surprisingly, then, publishers continue to brainstorm ways to bolster online revenue.  While a number of unique ideas have been proposed – the Journal Register is attempting to expand the number of digital revenue streams from 13 to 60(!) – publishers appear most interested in online subscriptions.  Numerous companies – international powerhouses like New York Times and local papers like the Augusta (GA) Chronicle – are making plans to institute paywalls, and some of them will undoubtedly succeed.  Witness The Times of London.  Despite the recent PR black-eye, sources report that the site is now firmly in the black.

But subscriptions clearly aren’t for everyone.  As Arianna Huffington so eloquently put it, “people don’t like paying for news and opinion…unless it’s financial stuff or very, very weird porn.”  Truly differentiated content – the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and, possibly, the New York Times – can make the paywall work.  But most publishers aren’t in that position.  So another approach is likely necessary to grow digital revenues moving forward.

At Razorfish, we believe it’s best to work within the current system.  Consumers have been viewing content on the web for free for almost two decades, and it’s going to be extremely challenging to change that behavior, especially in a few short months.  For these reasons, we’re actively developing an alternative monetization model – one that relies on user engagement to “turbocharge” existing revenue streams.  This model – which we’re calling the “playwall” – focuses on employing game mechanics to develop stronger, more productive relationships with consumers.

In the coming months, we will post a more detailed overview of our plans here.   In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to us or leave a reply below with your ideas, questions, or inspirations on this concept.

Brought to you by your Playwall Team: Nathan Thompson, Robert McCutcheon, & Raashi Bhalla.

Cheaper Than a Bag of Popcorn

Robert Stribley   March 18, 2010
Ebert content kernels for half the price of a movie ticket. (image via Washlander)

“‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”

- Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” March 2009

Since beloved film-critic Roger Ebert lost his voice to thyroid cancer four years ago, he has relied even more heavily on print and the Web to relate to the world at large. In that time, Ebert has increased his blogging, adopted Twitter and a few days ago, he wrote a typically charming blog entry, entitled, “I wonder if this will work.”  In it he detailed his long-time fascination with the practice of monetizing Web content. He then introduced the world to The Ebert Club, through which he intends to make a little dough, while still keeping the reviews available for free to readers.

Ebert says he and longtime colleague Gene Siskel were inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, which included them as an example of the potential power of micropayments, wondering how much money could be made on content if fans coughed up as little as 2 cents to read a review. Siskel and Ebert got their calculators out. Basically, if 3 million people paid 2 cents to read 250 of their reviews, they would be millionaires. Many times over.  A decade or so later, Ebert has brought a similar idea into reality. Rather than requesting micropayments by article, however, Ebert settled on an optional annual fee. People need pay only out of the kindness of their hearts – and a respect for the body of work Ebert has shared over decades. From a look at the comments, people have lined up to pay.

Modest as the man himself, membership in Club Ebert costs only $5 per year and includes access to special pages, a private discussion thread, curated tweets, and a few other forms of content.  He’s aware of the fact that micropayments haven’t met with much success yet. “I don’t have a brilliant new scheme for changing things,” he says, but he knows he’s the most-read movie critic on the Web and he wants to see if that popularity can transfer into currency.

Ebert isn’t the first to monetize a blog, of course, but he may be the first to do so within the context of a prominent newspaper.  His blog, Roger Ebert’s Journal, resides on the Chicago Sun- Times Web site, itself a money-making enterprise, presumably battling the intractable “death of print.” Will he be sharing his Club proceeds with the Sun-Times, or are those his to keep?  I don’t know. (In the parlance of his field, Mr. Ebert could not be reached for comment.) But Ebert’s prominence as a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and lovable curmudgeon should guarantee him a measure of success. And if he does succeed, we’ll see if other writers rush to adopt this nested money-making model within the papers which offer them homes.  Their success will clearly be dependent on whether they’re lucky enough to share the broad respect and influence Ebert possesses. His efforts don’t fix a broken model, but they may enable a few select stars to shine.

Content Perils of the Exposure Economy

Michael Barnwell   June 22, 2009


Take the plunge into the exposure economy at your own risk. (image via Edward McGowan)

Yet again, Google has led the way in defining the art of the profitable deal. In exchange for donating their labor and talents and finely crafted image files, a number of renowned illustrators were recently offered the opportunity to be exposed by Google. Yes, a week’s worth of work for the chance to have your illustration seen by millions. Any takers? You bet. (Let’s ignore those naysayers—they just don’t get it!)

News of this opportunity-of-a-lifetime spread fast. The smart set quickly climbed aboard. Rumor has it that both Sony and Loews are fighting ruthlessly to extend the concept. Get this—you independent filmmakers with your fierce independent voices—we’ll expose your films to paying customers in exchange for the donation of your months or years of work. Is there no end to this brilliant plan? Apparently not. A friend of mine who has worked as a chef in some of the better restaurants was recently offered the opportunity to have his stove-top artistry exposed to brimming rooms of diners in exchange for a non-paid 70-hour work week.

Seriously, the question comes back, naggingly, to the unresolved issue of free versus paid content—this time from the creator’s side of things instead of the reader. Is there a future for paid content when it’s up against the allure of free exposure? But then again, what happens after you’ve been fully exposed? Will you feel less inclined to work for free? Or does the sphere of exposure expand like the universe in perpetuity? Clearly, everything hasn’t been thought through, but doesn’t it make common sense that at some point, people observing, recording, interpreting, building, thinking, creating, i.e., working, need to be paid, and that revenue needs to be generated to pay them?

This week and last, CNN and the BBC have gained a windfall of free content by exposing tweets of those on the streets of Tehran. But no one seriously following the story can survive on tweets alone. On the finer points of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s reformist point of view, wouldn’t you need some longer-format reports (working knowledge of the Farsi language a plus)?

Is this what it comes down to? If it easy to do or lots of people are doing it, then it’s free, but if the works require some sustained mental exertion and some measure of expertise, then you should be paid. Maybe. But, again, to repeat the question, Why pay someone cash money when you can you offer them full exposure in all its glory? C’mon, no one ever died of exposure.

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Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

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