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March 3, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

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.

POSTED     March 3, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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