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Baseless speculation! Frank Rich and the price of paywalls for writers

Jack Shafer summed up Frank Rich’s upcoming move from The New York Times to New York magazine like so: “Unless the deal came with Bloombergian bags of cash, it makes no sense.”

True. The star columnist, after all — who has ascribed the move, vaguely, to self-reinvention — is moving from a national newspaper (print circulation: 1.35 million; monthly uniques: 34.5 million) to a city magazine (405,000 in circulation, 8.5 million in monthly uniques). Money — or, barring that, Rich wanting to spend more time with his family, or, barring that, wanting to spend more time with co-bromancer Adam Moss — may well have factored into a move that, on the surface, seems to be quite a slope away from “lateral.”

There’s also been some speculation, however, that the move had to do with the Times’ soon-to-rise paywall. (Writer Ben Schwartz: “I think Frank Rich is just escaping the coming paywall/wasteland at NYT, like an East German jumping the Berlin Wall.”) And whether or not that’s true in Rich’s case — it’s worth remembering that, as barriers go, the TimesWall will likely be less “mighty fortress” and more “puny pile of pebbles” — the idea in general is worth a moment of consideration. Paywalls, after all, represent a potential cost not just to the consumers of news, but to the producers of it.

For writers, both professional and non-, both compensated and not, exposure is generally a paramount goal — not for themselves, necessarily, but for their work and their words. That’s why they’re “writers” and not “diarists.” And when it comes to exposure, nothing beats the wide-open web. A borderless, boundless ecosystem in which something you’ve created has the potential to be consumed by people around the world via an almost unfathomably rich network of social connections is both a) awesome and b) terrifying. For publishers, though, despite their obvious interest in maximizing their content’s exposure, a) tends to be subsumed by b), for all the familiar reasons. While outlets have tried to transform the web’s scale into revenues — sharing news content, maximizing eyeballs and click-throughs, etc. — it’s become increasingly clear that, given our current digital infrastructure, a business based on exposure alone will be ineffective for all but the most heavily trafficked of news sites.

So publishers are turning away from models that emphasize economies of abundance, and toward ones that impose economies of scarcity: apps. Paywalls. Subscriptions. Et cetera. By strategically isolating their content from the pulsing, prodding world of the open web, outlets are attempting to reclaim analog artifacts of containment for a digital world whose every impulse is expansion.

Whether that will work as a business model remains to be seen. But it leads, it’s worth noting, to a basic problem: Increasingly, the motivations of writers and the motivations of the businesses they work for are at odds with each other. Journalists, enabled by the web, are increasingly defining success according to exposure, and news organizations are increasingly defining success according to the limitation of exposure. That’s a huge generalization, sure, but one that will become increasingly valid, I think, in an ecosystem that imposes a tension between walled gardens and open fields. One of the reasons TimesSelect ended the way it did, after all, was that its writers didn’t want to limit their audience to the customers who had paid for their work. The large pores in the Times’ newest paywall will try to avoid that problem, leveraging loyalty while preserving writers’ reach — and it’s a compromise that could well prove effective.

But a wall is a wall, pores or no pores. And a wall will, almost inevitably, cut traffic to a site and its stories. “We understand that the aggregate large number [of viewers] will come down,” Gerry Marzorati, the Times’ Assistant Managing Editor for New Products and Strategies, put it this week. “That’s just the price you pay for asking people to pay the price.”

The question is whether writers will be paying a price, as well. Josh explained earlier this week how Facebook’s new standardization of its “like” button could affect not just the distribution, but the content of news; it’ll be interesting to see whether the standardization of a paywall will engender a similar dynamic. Did the Times’ wall have anything to do with this week’s Rich Switch? Who knows. (As a fan of his work, I hope those Bloombergian bags of cash had at least something to do with the deal.) But it’s worth remembering that pay models, as walls or any other form, aren’t just business-side structures. They’re both medium and message, and affect all aspects of the news — from the reader to the writer to everyone in between.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    April 16, 2014
The first edition of the Orange County Register’s expansion into the Times’ turf is hot off the presses. Is this about selling papers or positioning for a further shakeout of the newspaper market?
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  • Arturius

    The NYT has once again become “The Grey Lady,” recapturing at least that aspect of its past. It is middle of the road to a fault, pro-war (it doesn’t matter which war so long as its ours), often anti-labor for reasons no doubt having to do with its own corporate agenda, and for those of us outside NYC, often irrelevant in terms of its content.

    I personally have had contact with NYT reporters who, confronted with factual contradictions to their reports, just shrug it off as though it doesn’t matter, that obviously what they print is the Truth.

    Frankly, I’m getting equal or better coverage of national events from expert bloggers. If they want people to pay for the comfort of accustomed “news,” news that is partial and often wrong, good luck to them.

    I personally adore Frank Rich and if he sees storm clouds on the horizon, I’m inclined to believe him over management flacks in Manhattan. What a relief it will be to know there is no national “newspaper of record” — the WaPost died long ago — to massage reality until it fits an Establishment correctness. I can get the opinions I want elsewhere and the news, the real news, elsewhere too. Bring on the paywalls, please.

  • http://www.spot.us digidave

    Great post Megan.

    Just the other day I was having a similar discussion. As I see it people write for some combination of three things.

    1. For money (it’s their job)
    2. For recognition (personal ego, career projections, etc)
    3. Because it’s a topic they care about (it is fun, not a chore, etc).

    Usually you can get two of those three things.

    For the NY Times right now it’s most likely 1 and 2.

    For the Huffington Post it’s 2 and 3.

    I’m not sure if the NY Times paywall will create a HUGE drop in numbers for the NY Times. But it does have the potential to do that in which case – the Times might need to think about replacing #2 with #3 (again, I doubt the drop would be SO huge that they’ll become an unknown media entity, but we are talking in extremes/caricatures here).

    Just my .02

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  • http://twitter.com/JonGarfunkel Jon Garfunkel

    Indeed, exposure went down during the TimesSelect. But by how much?

    This is the best I could do in 2007: http://civilities.net/TimesSelect
    The NYT 7 Op-Ed columnists saw their blog mentions decline 20% against other pundits. But they were still dominant overall.

  • Albatross65

    Pay models also affect the free use of content by bloggers who then get paid for their click-thoughs. If the bloggers paid for the use of writers’ work, then we might not need the pay models you cite.

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