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Paywalls, Dogmatism and my Hansel and Gretel Theory

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Arguments about paywalls around news content are becoming increasingly dogmatic and ideological. As a result, lots of sensible ideas about how to make money from new models of journalism are being obscured. Not least, how to add value to existing content so it becomes more identifiable, more searchable, and helps lead people ‘back home’ (that’s where the Hansel and Gretel theory comes in).

On one side of the fence you have pro-paywallers, led by the Murdochs, for whom paywalls seem to answer the question, ‘how are we going to solve the economic crisis in news?’. They’re in the process of trying to convince a great swathe of big news organizations to stop providing their content free at the point of delivery. By doing this, the theory goes, they will enhance the value of news content by reviving scarcity and convince a new generation to start paying for news. The ‘freeniacs are wrong’ writes Nicholas Carr, ‘Charging people for news, even online, is by no means an impossible dream’.

On the other side you have the anti-paywallers, led by a growing and increasingly coherent group of technologists, liberal educationalists, and bloggers for whom paywalls represent a complete misunderstanding of the new era of information abundance. To them, the construction of paywalls is a frantic attempt to recover a 20th century era of constrained media by a generation that ‘just doesn’t get it’. Building paywalls is ‘desperate stuff’, writes Stephen Foley, ‘It won’t work, and if newspaper executives on both sides of the Atlantic follow Mr Murdoch’s apparent lead, I predict we will witness the collective suicide of scores of news organisations in the US and elsewhere’.

Both sides are becoming more and more trenchant in their beliefs and ramping up the rhetoric. But, as with the fight between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels (about which end to crack open your egg), this ideological dogmatism is distracting us from the more difficult questions. And it doesn’t get us much closer to working out long term ways in which to enable journalism to pay for itself.

The pro-paywallers need to acknowledge that paywalls are not the Holy Grail that will solve all their economic woes. They should listen to polls – like the PaidContent Harris poll this week – indicating that most people would leave their favourite news site if it started charging , in favour of a free site elsewhere on the web. They should accept that it will not be possible to close the digital Pandora’s Box that is the internet and recreate the constrained published content environment of the twentieth century.

The anti-paywallers should concede that there will be areas of content where paywalls work. Paywalls do not have to cordon off all – or even the majority – of information on a site. The Racing Post has a smart and sustainable hybrid strategy of offering significant amounts of content free, and only charging for that which it knows its readers highly value (as reported in the Independent earlier this week). For £7.50 a month members get a horse racing TV channel streamed live to their computer (for which 3,000 people signed up in the first week). For £9.50 a month members can receive a ‘premium tipping service’ and for £199.95 a year they can get ‘ultimate membership’ with access to tips, races and the Racing Post database. Equally, the antis should acknowledge that journalism – as we’ve grown to understand it – is far from free to produce.

Mired in ideological silos, the pro and anti-paywallers are also missing some of the most important aspects of the debate. How do you add value to the content itself such that people will be more willing to pay for it? A question made more urgent for the Murdoch camp by the fact that most content becomes ‘invisible’ as soon as it goes behind a paywall.

Here’s where my Hansel and Gretel theory comes in. For those that don’t remember the Grimm fairy tale it goes something like this. Woodcutter’s wife convinces woodcutter they can’t afford to feed the children. Woodcutter therefore dumps children in the forest. But clever children find their way back by leaving a trail of pebbles. So woodcutter dumps them in forest again. This time, with only a breadcrumb trail, they can’t get home. They then get imprisoned in a gingerbread house by an old witch and… you can read the rest here.

News stories have been, up till now, a little like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Spread by news organizations round the web, they quickly attract an audience, but that audience gobbles them up and rarely follows the breadcrumbs back home. What if, instead of breadcrumbs, journalists and news organizations dropped pebbles? That way people wouldn’t eat them and there would be more chance they could lead them back home.

The difference between a breadcrumb story and a pebble story is metadata. Embed some good consistent metadata in a story and it turns something ephemeral into something much more solid. People suddenly know, for example, where it came from. A story can have the equivalent of an address and a zip code built into it, so people follow it back – by whatever trail they want.

Metadata has the significant added benefits that it is visible and malleable. It can be identified and picked up by search engines and aggregators. It can then be displayed such that people have enough information to know if they want more. A little like seeing the front page headlines on the news stand before deciding to put your hand in your pocket for some change. It can also be used for cross referencing stories, for digging through the archive, for building mash-ups.

Google has an example of how, using metadata, it can display more information about a site in its ‘search snippets’. Similarly, we (the Media Standards Trust) have been working out how to best integrate metadata in news through our Knight / MacArthur Transparency Initiative.

The ‘great paywall debate’ is not going to end anytime soon – but needs to be a little less polarized than it has been to date. Working out how to leaving a trail of pebbles would be a good start.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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