Paywalls Don’t Determine the Difference Between Good and Bad Media

May 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

My understanding of the whole paywall issue isn’t that it’s so much about making subscription money as it is about reasserting the value of proprietary content to advertisers.

It has been widely discussed, here and elsewhere, that content is substantially free. The single copy price of a newspaper doesn’t approach the cost of printing that copy. TV is free if I want it that way, but I choose to pay a cable provider for access to hundreds of channels, most of which don’t share in the subscription proceeds. As for the other channels, I’m paying for them, I suppose, in the same way I’m paying for all the Internet content I get as a consequence of the cost of my connectivity. The market generally regards that content as free, and I agree.  I pay Verizon. Frankly, I don’t know what they do with the money. I assume they keep as much as they can.

Paywalls aren’t going to change that math, overall. So I don’t think Paul Hayes, Managing Director of Commercial operations (effectively, ad sales) at News International, should be as concerned as he was at the Haymarket Brand Media “Big Media Debate” in the U.K. this week, when he said his neck was on the line if internet paywalls fail. According to the story in Media Week, Hayes said “If the [paywall] doesn’t work then I’m in the shit;” adding, “I think if it doesn’t work we face a future of less good media.”

That won’t happen. The paywall experiment may fail, but “good media” won’t fail with it – at least, not because of collapsing paywalls. All the so-called paying-for-content in the world isn’t doing enough to sustain its beneficiaries, anyway, yet we are awash in media, “good” and otherwise. Yes, traditional media business is “in the shit”; but it’s not because subscription prices fell off. It’s because people walked off for greener new media pastures and advertising has gone progressively with them.

Erecting paywalls is about fixing advertising for traditional media players online, which is probably why Paul Hayes is the supposed author of the plan at News International. Paywalls make money by trying to establish the higher advertising value of content for which people will “pay” versus content for which people will not. If paywalls fail, however, I guarantee you “good media” won’t fail with them. Paying for content is not a pre-condition of “good media”.

Ultimately, only the quality of an audience determines what is good or bad media, and while I may be an ungrateful wretch toward what I consider to be “good media”, it’s not my opinion that I pay for any of it. As such, please don’t blame Paul Hayes if paywalls don’t work.

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