Last week, I went on PBS Mediashift’s podcast to debate media mogul Steven Brill about the power of paywalls. Brill runs Press+, one of the first companies that built a business around setting up paywalls for publications. They focus on NYT/FT-like “metered” paywalls, where you get some content for free, but if you hit a certain number of pages, you’re locked out unless you pay. Brill, whose company had to sell out to a much larger player recently (suggesting it’s not as successful as he makes it out to be), insists during the episode that there is no way to make money giving away journalism content for free, and insists that advertising is no way to make money. You can hear our debate starting at around 18:45 on the podcast:
There was a lot more that could have been said if we’d had the time, but I found a number of his arguments bizarre. The internet represents a huge opportunity to grow and expand a business — yet he’s celebrating the fact that the sites who agree to put up the giant padlock he’s selling are “only” losing a little bit of their traffic? This is the time to be investing in and growing traffic, because as soon as free competitors come along, and people realize they don’t need to pay any more, what will these sites have left? They’ll have less traffic, less advertising and less subscription revenue. That’s no way to invest in the future.
Separately, there was a nonsensical story about a journalism student who might get hired for a publication, but if that publication gives away its content for free, she can’t pay her rent any more. I have no time for arguments like that. If she got hired, she has a salary. If a publication is giving away content for free that doesn’t mean it makes no money or has no business model. Arguments like that suggest someone who has no real argument.
I am sure that the publications — mostly regional newspapers — that are using Press + are successful in slowing the rate of churn. Some paper subscribers probably agree to do a bundled package for the time being, getting paper and digital access. But it’s not a long term solution. Perhaps for people of Brill’s generation, it makes sense, but I don’t know many people under 40 who subscribe to a local newspaper any more. There’s more and more info available for free online. And there are growing opportunities to provide more such info.
Advertising is a tough way to make a living, but no one says it’s the only way to make money online. There are lots of creative ways to make money online that don’t involve pissing off your userbase and limiting what they can do. When you do that, you make the content that much less valuable, and that’s no way to run a business.