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Paywalls: In search of a 'shut up and take my money' moment

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Matt Harman
Matt Harman

This is the year I fully intended to pay for my news habit. I was committed. The credit card was at the ready. Shut up and take my money sat on tip of my tongue...and yet...I haven’t done it.

Not once have I heard that little voice telling me - go for it!, you won’t regret it.

I thought the New York Times would be the first to get me to pry open my wallet. When they introduced their metered paywall, I found myself visiting more frequently. I strove to hit the free article view limit so I could say to myself ‘well, I obviously use this, clearly I need to pay for it’.

Despite my best efforts, reaching the payment threshold has eluded me. I guess I’m not as well read as thought. Apparently I’m not the only one.

Next, The Australian caught my eye as a possible benefactor of my urge to splurge. I’m a long term fan of their media section (endless competitive posturing aside). Then someone ruined that for me by mentioning that you get the content for free if you access it via search (there’s a limit, but you're unlikely to reach it in the world of multiple browsers, devices and networks).

It’s difficult to justify any cost, no matter how small, if you know that there’s an easy and convenient way around it. And that’s before you start to comparison shop the offerings of competing media.

Closer to home, New Zealand now has three news paywalls of its own: the Listener, NBR and the Ashburton Guardian, plus a few more specialist ones like NZ Doctor.

The Listener is the one that’s most likely to get my investment. They’ve got some great writers, cover interesting stories and manage to maintain an impressive attention to detail. When I heard a little while ago that a paywall was on the horizon - I was genuinely excited about it.

Yesterday the Listener launched its paywall along with a freshly minted website.

It’s a big improvement. It works on mobiles and tablets as well as desktops. Material is available to digital subscribers at the same time it’s published in print (taking down the ‘time wall’ as they put it).

It’s a good site that built by a high quality team and one that directly addresses the main frustration people had with the old site - that content wasn’t available online for two weeks after it appeared in print.

They’ve chosen an understandable and well trodden route. They’ve taken what they are producing anyway (for print) - and loaded it online. The weekly content upload is supplemented by some first rate online only contributions.

My only problem with it - and the reason I’m yet to subscribe - is that the orientation of the site seems to be towards providing a filing cabinet for content produced for print.

The filing cabinet approach to web publishing is extremely common. In the interests of creating structure, making material findable and getting it to fit consistently into a template, you categorise it and then present it in lists.

Problem is - lists suck.

To most of us lists represent things to do. Lists are tasks to be ticked off. They typically don’t offer us enjoyment, escapism, a sense of immersion or the likelihood of serendipitous discovery.

In other words - they offer little of what we get out of spending time with magazine or newspaper.

I think this is why I’m struggling to make myself pay for news. A great news product is about more than just great journalism, it’s about the whole consumption experience. Unfortunately the online news experience hasn’t evolved - or at least, it hasn’t evolved enough for paywalls to be a sound business model (fringe success stories aside).

So for the media - I have a challenge for you for 2013: Give me a ‘shut up and take my money’ moment.

Here’s where I’d start:
1) Think about what’s enjoyable about reading a magazine or a newspaper. It’s likely to be things like the interesting and varied layouts, strong images and graphics that are well showcased, excellent typography and that positive feeling that comes from serendipitous learning as you flick through the publication. Plus of course your perception of the quality of the journalism presented.
2) Look at your website. Evaluate how closely it matches the things that you’ve identified as important in (1).
3) Bridge the gap.

A few years ago bridging the gap was easier said than done. That’s now less true.

Tablets, HTML5, acceptable broadband and the emergence of robust open source software put the creation of extraordinary digital experiences within the reach of a range of publishers. 

Once you’ve created an experience that’s as immersive, as compelling and as satisfying as what you offer in print, think about how to evolve it to be natively digital.

That doesn’t mean just publishing more material, faster. Or other typical answers like ‘more video’ or live coverage.

It means understanding what experiences you can offer your audience that are natively ‘of the internet’. Things like giving your audience the ability to connect the dots between facts, ideas and people. To navigate themselves around the facets of the big issue of the day. To delve into the raw data behind the story and to visualise and share it in a way that perhaps you haven’t even thought of.

I’d pay for that. 

Matthew Harman has been working in digital media since 1999.  He's responsible for some good and less good contributions to the Internet. Along the way he's probably learnt some stuff.  He is currently a co-founder of Fuseworks Media, which provides real-time news tools to media and communications professionals.  His views are his own. 

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