To Subscribe Or Not To Subscribe: Is This Even a Question? #NYT #publishing #Free
[image credit: Panoramio]
“Nobody disputes the assertion that the Times cannot survive without increasing its revenues. Because I need the Times in my life—to read and to bitch about—I have no problem with the paper ejecting as many free-riders as necessary and soaking as many of the habituated (you're looking at one) to make the paper prosper. So as we pick the mortar from the paywall and heave the loose bricks over the top at the Times noggins, keep this in mind: The pricing scheme and process by which the paper evicts its millions of squatters doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to increase revenues appreciably. If it does that, I'll be happy to call it a success.”
- Jack Shafer, Slate
Shafer calls attention to several elements in this game: an undiscovered and arguably unstable revenue model, undue process, and the alienation of a readership – for good, for bad or for worse – that leave a lot of unanswered questions on the table. And a lot of potentially empty subscriptions.
What exactly are we paying for... Is it quality? What constitutes quality? Is it us? If so, what qualifies us, other than our levels of participation? How do we turn “squatting” into active commentary? Can comments really shape the value of stories worth selling?
As the New York Times rolls out its new paywall strategy, it is clear that the value tiers we ascribe to the quality of writing that is published online might be considered what Dan Sinker calls a "false start." Maybe we’re looking at all of this from the wrong angle, which is really to say that perhaps scarcity economics — a loosely founded and unjustified precept for the Internet commerce system (and arguably every commerce system in the 21st century) — must give way to a higher line of reasoning: people. Moreover, the people who interact with and share content, on the mark of their willingness to participate in stories, and to create renewed context around them, make up the currency value that we pay for. Content networks, if you will.
But this isn’t quite the Quora model of today – a veritable free-for-all – or the HuffPo model of the connected reader, rather the nodes and connectors in between. And stemming from those, behaviors that we can associate or correlate to the value of what we write about and why we write. You know, the source.
So where do good stories really come from? Perhaps the bigger question should be where do good stories really go?
Many have compared online publishing and reading to online music in that the easy download process have made publishers' work readily accessible to news lovers and information junkies. Maybe, just maybe, the value of “Free” resides in the source of consensus opinion, bridging the divide between “fact” and “fiction”, and in the process, bringing us to some greater notion of what quality can really be.
Here are some considerations.
Readership = subscription.
There is an important legacy to recognize in being a New York Times reader: it is an elite club, one that carries with it intellectual merit, and a curiosity for greater understanding, a thirst for what good really means. The same can be said for other great publications like The Washington Post, The Economist, Esquire, Wired, The Atlantic, Flatmancrooked or Guernica. So, those who read your publication, and those to whom they are connected, determine your worth. But that’s only one side of it – for one, how are we spanning generations of readers whose identities have yet to align with one publication or another?
People as publishers.
Sourcing stories has always been a mad dash to make headlines and grab attention. Nowadays, people everywhere have the ability to publish content, to say anything, at will. Yet the iReporters of the world are given no reciprocity for their efforts, at least not for much beyond mere cents on the dollar. Perhaps the opportunity lies in giving them the power of consensus and to co-create stories that are ongoing through the power of human networks. And if we choose to sell ads against those interactions, then so be it. If we choose to pay writers or reporters for those interactions, even better. However, whatever we do, we can’t game the system like the Demand Medias of the world, we need to make the system work better.
‘Inventory’ gives way to ‘influence’.
Whether we consume stories through blogs, ad units, tablets, buckets or whatever we choose to share them across networks is a matter of our approach to the publishing paradigm, one that will ultimately dictate why we choose to read, interact or share in the first place. What carries content is not really the issue. Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that the source is the destination. Let’s embrace the notion that people act as those destinations, and those who have great influence on the experience of storymaking. Good stories, made and curated through the lens of good publishing, create demand around their discovery, not access to demand that is buffered by media inventory.
Content, community and consensus.
The real boon in all of this is consensus. Trending topics aside, the themes that emerge out of our interactions are those that journalists, by vocation, can leverage. They can curate. They can make stories really mean something, and they can sustain the ebb-and-flow of media inventory through the very communities that converge around the content that we share or through which we participate.
The Big Data element.
In this sense, the concept of “Free” takes on new meaning. Participation is really an invitation into formalizing one’s online identity. It means that privacy is no longer a burden, but a privilege... A right to access the tougher questions, and a means for extracting the best of what a reader, or a writer, has to offer. From there, a subscription is an experience in which meaningful conversation takes shape through careful curation – translating the consensus opinions of those who care about what stories mean to them in the context of their own lives. And if those people earn the conversations around what matters to them, so that stories take shape iteratively and through thoughtful examination of the biases that drive those stories, then they can curate on behalf of the publication. From there, more stories emerge. And from there, the data trails tell their own unique stories about the human condition. Isn’t this what we, as people and publishers, really want to know?
A real kind of ‘publishing exchange’.
If expert opinion is now validated by consensus, then the barter between media inventory and publishers no longer leaves people as casualties of their own doing. Traditionally, we’ve all wanted what we seemingly can’t have, and price has been used as an artificial boundary. But if price is determined by the marketplace, through tiers regulated by curated consensus, the story changes. Now the exchange is one of ideas, insights and relational value. Human value.
The great, wide open...
What stands in the way of this? Is it the printing press? Old guard management and dated infrastructure?
If so, then we can still consider this: some of the biggest publications in the world made the move online. They did it with relative speed and precision. And perhaps it’s their readers they forgot to thank for this transition.
Publishers can make up for it by making subscriptions an incentive to lend and leverage people’s unique voices. To become the curators of the next Big Perspective.
That is something we should all be willing to pay for, if not for ourselves, but for the next generation of readers and writers, young and old.