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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

This Week in Review: Time’s non-pay paywall, free vs. pay in Britain and what to do with content farms

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A Time quasi-paywall discovered: Thanks to some collaborative online sleuthing — OK, basically just wandering around on a website and asking some simple questions — we found out that Time magazine is planning an online paywall. Reuters’ Felix Salmon ran into the wall first a few weeks ago, but saw that it had disappeared by the next day. Then on Tuesday, the Lab’s Joshua Benton noticed it again, pointing out that this was an odd kind of paywall — one without any sort of way to pay online (“a paywall without a door,” in his words).

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka got word the next day that the paywall is part of a company-wide strategy at Time Inc. to separate its print and iPad content from its online material. The Lab found out that Time does indeed have a plan to give that paywall a door and provide a way to purchase articles online, and The New York Times reported that this paywall sans pay is part of a gradual effort to retrain readers to pay for content online and noted that not everything from the magazine is gone from the website.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer called the move not a paywall, but “the magazine equivalent of a condom” — a way to separate online readers from its print content. She noted that the move limits non-print access to Time to a very select group of people — namely, iPad owners. Essentially, it’s a hardware requirement to read Time magazine, something Publish2′s Scott Karp asked whether we’re going to start to seeing more of.

All Things Digital’s Kafka wondered why Time wouldn’t just offer its print articles for free if the magazine’s print and online audiences were as separate as they’re typically said to be. New York’s Chris Rovsar posited that the new wall is about protecting its $4.99 iPad app: If all your print stuff is available through the iPad browser for free, why buy the app? DailyFinance media critic Jeff Bercovici made the same point and argued that while Time may appear forward-thinking here, this move is really a regression. Newsweek’s Mark Coatney, a former Time staffer, was ruthless in his assessment of the strategy, saying that it all comes back to value, and Time hasn’t articulated why its print content is worth paying for, but its online stuff isn’t.

A paid-content contrast in Britain: Time was far from the only paywall news this past week: Three relatively small Gannett papers put up a $9.95-a-month paywall last Thursday, and the most important new paywall may have been at The Times of London and The Sunday Times, two of Britain’s oldest and most respected publications, which began charging for everything on their site last Friday. That development is particularly important because it’s the first move in the paid-content crusade that Rupert Murdoch has been gearing up for since last summer.

Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Guardian, another prominent British paper that is staunchly in favor of free online content, released a WordPress plugin that allows blogs and websites to embed the full text of Guardian stories for free. (Steve Outing demonstrated with a post on the iPad.) It’s an unprecedented move, and one that made for a pretty easy contrast with the Times’ protectionist strategy online. Outing did it most explicitly in two posts, arguing that the Guardian’s strategy taps into a worldwide revenue potential, while the Times relies on its brand-loyal British readers. Murdoch “apparently still doesn’t understand that this whole pay-for-news-online thing is not about the needs of publishers like him. It’s about what the audience for news is willing to do and willing to pay for,” he wrote.

Learning from (and fighting with) content farms: Since acquiring the online content provider Associated Content in May, Yahoo has become the latest online media company to begin producing articles based on a calculation of search terms, including for its new news blog, The Upshot. The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford took a look at these “content farms,” focusing on why journalists hate them and what news organizations might be able to learn from them. (On the latter point, Stableford’s sources said content farms’ acute attentiveness to what people are interested in reading could be particularly instructive.)

One of the people Stableford quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” clarified his stance a bit, saying that what bugs him is not the low pay, but the lack of quality. Still, he acknowledged that because of cost-cutting, many small- and medium-sized newspapers’ content is just as mediocre. Peter Berger, a CEO of Suite101.com, one of those content generators, said the concern from news organizations is a red herring, and his industry really presents the biggest threat to non-fiction books.

Canadian writer Liz Metcalfe voiced some similar thoughts, arguing that the problem with the “demand content” model isn’t the model itself, but the poor quality of what gets produced. Newspapers should find a way to incorporate the model while producing high-quality material, and beat the content farms at their own game, she said. On the other hand, Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

A private group called the Internet Content Syndication Council wants to do something about these dastardly villains, and they’re exploring a few options, including drafting a set of content-quality guidelines, licensing content syndicators and asking Google to tweak its search formula. CNET’s Caroline McCarthy wondered what a guideline or licensing system would do with bloggers.

Chronicling an accelerating shift to mobile: The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a couple of fascinating studies in the past week, the first on the future of social relations online and the second a survey of Americans’ mobile use. The latter study in particular turned up a raft of interesting statistics, led by the finding that 59 percent of adults go online wirelessly, including 47 percent of Americans with their laptops and 40 percent with their cell phones.

Poynter’s Mobile Media focused on the rise in “non-voice” uses for cell phones over the past year (Silicon Alley Insider has it in graphical form). The New York Times and Washington Post centered on the survey’s finding that African-Americans, Hispanics, young people and poorer Americans are among the heaviest mobile media users, with the Times stating that “the image of the affluent and white cellphone owner as the prototypical mobile Web user seems to be a mistaken one.”

Here at the Lab, Laura McGann seized on another tidbit from the study indicating that about a fifth of young adults have made a donation via their cell phone. She tied that finding to the public radio station WBUR’s attempt to find a way to allow users to donate via an iPhone app, something Apple doesn’t allow, asking how nonprofit news orgs might be able to find a way to tap into that willingness to give through their cell phones.

Reading roundup: Lots of really thoughtful stuff this week that’s well worth your time (I assume it is, anyway — maybe your time’s much more valuable than mine):

— The debate over objectivity and journalism raged on this week, fueled by the firing of CNN’s Octavia Nasr over a remark she made on Twitter. Many of the arguments circled around to the same ground we’ve covered with the Gen. McChrystal and Dave Weigel flare-ups, but I wanted to highlight three takes that stand out: Salon’s Dan Gillmor on America’s “technically good subservient press,” Jay Rosen on “objectivity as a form of persuasion,” and Mediaite’s Philip Bump on a journalism of individuals.

— Many new media folks have been following the fate of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, and the Columbia Journalism Review has a pretty definitive account of where they stand.

— ReadWriteWeb has a handy resource for zooming out and taking a look at the big picture — a summary of five key web trends so far at 2010′s halfway point.

— Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the short-lived journalism startup NewsTilt and comes away with some helpful lessons.

— Finally, Google researcher Paul Adams has a presentation on the problems with the way social media is designed that’s been making its way around the web. It’s a whopping 216 slides, but it’s a simple yet insightful glance at what feels just a little bit wrong about our social interactions online and why.

                                   
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Craig Silverman    April 22, 2014
When you commit to explaining the important issues in the news, you commit to a life of updating. What’s the best way to manage a corpus of news knowledge with an uncertain half-life?