This week in the paid content debate

Posted by on Aug 16, 2009 in Strategy

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The best of the bunch is the back-and-forth between billionaire Mark Cuban, and the bete noire of many print publishers, Michael Wolff, who runs the Newser.com content-aggregation site.  Cuban actually suggests something that shows that he’s put more thinking into the issue than the kneejerk “Up with the paywalls!” bunch.  I note below the flaw in his plans – my ex-roommate used to describe for me in detail how impossible it was at Time-Warner-AOL to get the jealous VPs of Home Video, say, to play nice with the guys from HBO and pay-per-view. Why make someone else’s P&L sheets look good? That just means they are going to get the Exec VP slot faster than you…

Anyway, the discussion in all cases gets heated very quickly. Insults are thrown around, fisking takes place in the comment threads, but a few actual new ideas & fact-based analyses sneak in here and there. The fact that some very smart entrepreneurs are actually interested enough to toss in some innovative thinking is rather heartening, actually.

  • Mark Cuban gives some free advice to fellow billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch: http://blogmaverick.com/2009/08/08/my-advice-to-fox-myspace-on-selling-content-yes-you-can/ Basically, he advances the idea that to get consumers to pay for news, you have to bundle it up with other goods, services and content that exist within giant organizations such as Fox or Time-Warner. A “Newsjunkie” subscription would come with access to special sections of Fox News, a couple of books from HarperCollins, magazine subscriptions and DVDs of 20th Century Fox movies.  Commenters point out that such “synergies” remain elusive in these big media conglomerates, as each of the divisions is still in its own silo, with its own P&L, jealously guarding its own turf. Cuban paid special attention to aggregators, suggesting that newspapers ban links from aggregators such as Michael Wolff’s Newser.com.
  • Michael Wolff responds with a post entitled “Mark Cuban is a Big Fat Idiot” http://www.newser.com/off-the-grid/post/237/mark-cuban-is-a-big-fat-idiotmdash3bnews-will-stay-free.html Highlights include “some people” finding Cuban bumptious, arrogant and rich only through a dot-com fluke. Wolff maintains that news will always be free and ad-supported, and suggests that Cuban must be “smoking something” …
  • …leading to Mark Cuban responding with a schoolyard-taunt opus: I’m Rubber, You’re Glue http://blogmaverick.com/2009/08/12/to-michael-wolf-im-rubber-youre-glue/ Not sure what it means when the discussion over paywalls degenerates so quickly, even amongst intelligent and successful publishers.  Apparently, Cuban takes umbrage to Wolff calling him a “big fat idiot,” and in turn, taunts Wolff by criticizing his “outdated model” of a site.
  • The fallacy of the Link economy: http://paidcontent.org/article/419-the-fallacy-of-the-link-economy/ This is another assault on the value of inbound links from Google and other news aggregation sites.  Arnon Mishkin says that even sites that publish a headline and short description of a news story appearing on another site are destructive, because readers mostly skim stories, and therefore get the news content they need without having to click through. No word from him on what he thinks newspapers should do on newsstands – perhaps they should be like old-school porn magazines, in plain brown wrappers.
  • Ken Ellis responds on NP-Harder: http://npharder.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/the-fallacies-of-arnon-mishkin/He picks apart some of the assumptions as to what constitutes value from links, and concludes, “All that being said, I still agree in principle with his final three points.  However reclaiming value from aggregators isn’t going to help publishers much.  They need subscribers and a pay wall.  Not an iron curtain, but a permeable pay wall along the lines of the Wall Street Journal.  There’s no save-my-business-model pot of gold out there in the hands of aggregators to help you pay for all that good journalism.”
  • TechCrunch proclaims “The Media Bundle is Dead,” http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/16/the-media-bundle-is-dead-long-live-the-news-aggregators/ Erick Schonfeld addresses paid content by claiming that back when newspapers still enjoyed local monopolies on news, “80 percent of the stories in the paper sucked,” but that the audience was still forced to buy the paper because there was no alternative.  Kind of like the argument that the music industry has failed because people are no longer willing to pay $15 for a CD that contains one song they like, and 9 others that are crummy.
  • Five Key Reasons Newspapers Are Failing: http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/five-key-reasons-why-newspapers-are-failingOnly the first point really addresses paid content, but the suggestions at the end of the piece on how to transform a newspaper into a web-based news operation that will produce the type of content that readers will actually reach into their wallets and pay for – is very instructive.
  • A post drawing an interesting parallel between Microsoft’s dilemma on how to compete with Google’s free Open Office product, while still maintaining its huge profits from its own MS Office suite http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2009/08/future-of-local-news-about-more-than-paid-content225.html
  • A rather scathing piece on how Reuters should take advantage of the AP’s “suicide” http://techdirt.com/articles/20090724/1533155652.shtml
  • From “Scooping the News” a post entitled: Newspaper Access Fees Destined for Failure: http://www.scoopingthenews.com/2009/08/newspaper-access-fees-destined-for.html He compares the paywall solutions to pop-up ads.  He lists five points that he claims explain why access fees will not generate that much revenue. Basically, the argument against boils down to the “internet readers are used to getting information for free, and they have lots of alternatives, so they’ll never pony up when newspapers start slamming down the paywalls.”
  • Steve Outing gets psychological in explaining what changes to user behavior will have to take place before consumers start paying for news: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/stopthepresses_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003997955
  • And finally, another piece about how raising the paywall will “kill the buzz” around quality content, pointing out that even print newspapers get shared, picked up, discussed in the pub and curated. http://23musings.com/2009/08/15/raise-the-paywall-stop-linking-kill-the-buzz/

Written by Dave Lafontaine

Dave LaFontaine is AIM Group director for Latin America. He has more than 20 years of experience as a journalist, editor and multimedia producer. He is a videographer who has worked for ABC’s PrimeTime and as managing editor for FilmsOn.com. He is also a blogger and entertainment writer who has worked for a number of tabloid and specialty publications. He has served as managing editor of the Caracas Daily Journal, and worked as an editor and reporter in Latin America. He writes about interactive media for the Newspaper Association of America, World Association of Newspapers and others. He is based in Los Angeles.