I’m in London at the Guardian’s
Changing Media Summit conference.
Guess the subject that has most often come up. Yes, yes, pay walls. The absolute determination on the part of many of the world’s most powerful news organizations to charge for content. The steely determination. The moral necessity to charge. The inevitability of it.
This has been the central subject at all media conferences for more than a year. Rupert Murdoch has become a sort of fulminating robot on the subject of paid news, followed closely behind by his fulminating son, James. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher and controlling shareholder of the New York Times
, with the Times’
CEO, Janet Robinson (Sulzberger is really the CEO, and Robinson the number two, but who’s counting), go around to conferences together painstakingly outlining the intricacies of their as yet highly uncertain pay-wall strategy, the job, at less panicked and self-obsessed companies, of mid-level product managers.
My question—and the question of my interlocutor at the conference, the Guardian’s
redoubtable Emily Bell (the Guardian
has no plans to charge)—is what’s taking so long?
If these mooks really want to charge for this stuff, why don’t they?
What the hell?
For all of us in the actually Internet news business (as opposed to people in the business of putting up stuff from another news medium on the Internet), the other guys charging for content is what we’re waiting for. It’ll define the market. You can pay for that version of the news. Or take our version for free. Two models, two different forms. Let the market decide (and quite a surprising decision it will be).
Here at Newser, we're particular eager for the charge walls to go up. You’ll be able to pay to spend more of your time and effort reading the New York Times
, or you can come to Newser and for no money at all spend less time and effort getting the news in the Times
But they don’t do it. They don’t put up the goddamn pay walls—they just talk about it.
This is jawboning—an effort to get other people in the news industry to do the same thing, to talk a monopolistic shared business practice into existence. And it is a trial balloon—an effort to gauge the consumer reaction (answer: not great. The recent Pew study on online news habits found only a scant percentage of even the most fervent news consumers willing to pay). And it is a game of chicken—hoping someone else will go first and be the guinea pig.
And it’s hoping against hope that if they talk about it long enough, the advertising market will improve and they won’t have to march down this existential path to potential nothingness.
I’m ready, if they’re not.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.