May 2010
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Ostriches, Cheapskates, Charlatans, Old Dogs and Hippies

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings.
Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.

Paywalls are in the air. The Times have just launched their new site, and more will follow. No-one is quite sure how many people are going to cough up their cash for the content – we’ll just have to wait and see. For today, let’s just try to put the people that won’t pay into neat little boxes. Let me know where you fit in, if there are any big groups I’ve forgotten, or if you think this is just plain old horseshit. Here goes nothing – meet the Ostriches, Cheapskates, Charlatans, Old Dogs and Hippies.

The Characters

The Ostriches don’t particularly care about news. They don’t buy newspapers and don’t care much for newspaper sites. They’ll clearly never pay for editorial content as it isn’t something they need. ‘Nuff said.

Cheapskates have a price point of $0.00. Given the choice between a crap sprocket for $0.00 versus a pretty decent sprocket at $0.01, they’d take the crap one. While they acknowledge that the Times, for example, might have better quality editorial than other sites, there is no way in hell they’d pay for it. You’ll hear them often in the current debates – if site X charges me, I’ll get my fix from site Y. Cheapskates also only read free print newspapers.

The Charlatans wouldn’t pay online for anything either, but for different reasons. Hell, if I get my films, TV shows, music, eBooks and prawn for free from BitTorrent or Rapidshare, why in heaven’s name would I pay for news? There are a lot of charlatans out there. Even yours truly has occasionally downloaded something for backup purposes before I’ve got around to buying the product. Ironically, the last music I actually paid for were the tunes for my son’s second birthday, which was a pirate party. And yes, I steal images from Google Images without proper attribution, for which I am deeply ashamed.

Old Dogs are more honest than Charlatans and happily pay for content they consider valuable. Paying for a film, music album, eBook or their niche prawn collection is normal practice for these guys. They’d probably even buy digital editions of magazines, because they’re using to paying for print subscriptions and magazine websites have never offered a decent free alternative. However, they are horrified by the idea of paying for newspaper content only because, in recent times, they’ve got used to getting the content for free from the websites. Had the newspapers never had free sites, they might not find themselves in the pickle they’re currently in as there are a lot of Old Dogs out there who certainly don’t learn new tricks easily.

Then we have the Hippies. They wouldn’t pay as it violates their moral code. These tree huggers believe in Open Standards, Open Source, Open Data, Free Love, Free Beer, Free Interwebs and Free Content. Ideologically speaking, I’m pretty closely aligned with this bunch, and I certainly look like a Hippie. I’m completely with them on Open Standards and Open Source, both of which can happily co-exist with paid for revenue models. Open Data and Paywalls aren’t compatible, but the point of the Open Data movement is making freely available factual data which is compiled using the tax-payers money. It isn’t about devaluing content produced by hard working individuals or companies.

Some afterthoughts

The great @McBoof has a bit of all of these characters in his DNA. However, I really really hope that the paywalls work and quality journalism gets the funding it needs and deserves to flourish. The main alternative, ad revenue, is stinky. The lion’s share goes to the search engines, aggregators and shitty content farms. The next alternative is “changing the way newspapers produce content”, which means you’ll be reading crap like this blog instead of professionals that can actually form coherent thoughts and do proper research.

There is a lot more to chat about. If paid-for journalism fails, what’ll go next? Music is already struggling, and films are taking a small beating from the Charlatans. Paid-for prawn is on the decline, with dating sites overtaking them in revenue. In 5 or 10 years time, will we all only be watching amateur home movies or free blockbusters with even more product placement that we have already?

And we also need to chat about the clear shift from “buying” to “renting” (or ownership vs access) . But seeing I’m always accused of rambling on for too long, I’ll leave it at that and talk about the rest later. Hell, I’ve got so much interesting stuff to share with you guys, I might just put up my own paywall.

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12 comments to Ostriches, Cheapskates, Charlatans, Old Dogs and Hippies

  • Pie

    Old Dog. I understand the Hippies, as I like quality journalism. I’m not sure that the pay walls will work yet. If they don’t all switch to that model, the fee sites will get more traffic, increasing ad revenue, and falsely showing how pay walls can never work.


  • Peter

    Also Old Dog, particularly when it comes to music (have I expressed my undying love for Pandora here yet?). That said, the formative history of the interwebitubes is dominated by pandering to the cheapskates (which encourages the cheapskate tendencies in all of us) and I’m not sure how any single or small group of content providers can reverse that damage now that it’s been done.

    Perhaps the news publishers will eventually form some kind of (shock!) cartel and (horror!) secretly agree to impose paywalls simultaneously? I can’t imagine that happening (particularly in the strong anti-collusion markets), and even if it did they run the risk of being continually undercut by prolific amateurs.

    Makes me sad actually – journalism is serious business and there’s no substitute for trained professionals… but if they can’t get paid for what they do, they won’t be around for long.

  • @grayscale100

    Vexed issues, man. Very vexed issues. *takes drag on Camberwell Carrot* I’m a Hippie, mostly, with incompatible opinions roughly equivalent to ‘All possession is theft’ and ‘Possession is nine parts of the law’. Unless it’s my possession, in which case get your filthy thieving mitts off it or I’m calling the fuzz.
    Then again, as a Brit, resident in Britland, I already do pay for my news content, compulsorily, and happily, along with loads of TV channels and the best radio stations in the world. The BBC is one of the most remarkable and socially valuable service organisations in the world.

    Should it be subject to the same market forces as, FOR EXAMPLE, the publications of the Messrs Murdoch and Son? I look at Fox News in the States and I say no. The market’s not always right. The market’s sometimes a wrongheaded asshole. And cash profit is definitely NOT the only measure of quality, progress, success or value, as Murdoch The younger tried to claim last year at the Edinburgh thing,

    It is for the Murdochs, because that’s the game they’re in. But is it for the audience? Or is consistently impartial, agenda-free reporting the key success factor in News? I’m happy paying my £3 or £4 a week for my BBC news (and masses of extras) and I’m not sure I really need to pay any more to anyone else to be served up an agenda of ‘Vote For Who I Tell You To Vote For’.

    In fact I am sure – I don’t need it. Most of the election coverage in The Sun and The Times was insulting, hectoring, one-eyed gibberish, trashing one side while boosting the other with naked bias. (Also, to be fair, the Grauniad and The Mail.)

    So I’ve ended up having a pop at the Murdochs here, rather than talking about pay walls – about which the market will decide, so that’s ok – feeling all the while a little awkward, in the spirit of openness, about the great @McBoof’s relationship with NI. Update your profile and declare an interest, Jon – no one would ever accuse you of hiding an agenda, but I do think that you should have prefaced this by letting us know your professional role in the forthcoming Content Wars.

    Great piece though, as usual – thanks.

  • @grayscale100

    It’s the information, man. It wanted to be free. Not paid for ;-)

  • Carlos

    A blend of Charlatan, Old Dog and Hippie for me.

    The main decision point for me is not money, but pain. :)

    And by pain I mean, when I pay for something I expect it to be as useful as if I’d downloaded it without copyright. So if I pay and then in return the provider locks the item down, specifying when, where and how often I can watch it, I’m just not masochistic enough.

    But if by paying a reasonable fee I can download the item with the same freedoms as the pirates, then that would be my first option. (Hanging around with pirates also tends to be a bit painful.)

    Case in point: I’ve paid for MP3s, but never a DRMed format.

    So maybe I’m a commercial hippie-wannabe?

  • Do you prefer one-off payments for things you own, or subscription paying for access? iTunes or Spotify?

  • bex

    You’ve left out a group… for some it’s simply a matter of convenience. I want the information NOW, and anything in my way will make me look elsewhere. Heck: I leave the New York Times page if they ask me to register for a FREE login…

    I pay for news: but only the stuff that has no “free” alternative… Like The Economist, The Week, The Atlantic, and Consumer Reports.

    I’ve said it before: this has nothing to do with the costs of journalism… this has everything to do with the fact that some newspapers are too rigid to innovate properly. Paywalls??? Please… A better bet would be to streamline your business. You can easily support a solid group of journalists with online ad revenue. You just can’t support much else…

  • I guess that I’m an “old dog”. I’m happy to fork out a quid a day so I can read the Times on the bus to work – I’m just not prepared to pay to browse it once I get there. For me, if you’re buying a physical artefact it just feels that you’re getting something tangible for your quid. I don’t like Spotify for the same reason.

    There are some examples of paywalls working – the for instance have returned to profitability since they launched their paywall. However, their revenue has been based on a number of factors, most important of which was doubling the price of both the print and online editions. The Wall Street Journal has also picked up more than 400k subscribers since it put up its paywall too.

    That said, both these players are sellers of niche, specialist journalism with a very loyal customer base. Grayscale100 touches on a very relevant point here… when it comes down to it, is the Times Online content really worth paying for?

    Personally, I hope the Times make a success out of this, because advertising-based revenue models aren’t going to keep journalists in work. You can bet that the Times’ main competitors are hoping this works out too…

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