The Fear of Paywalls and the Newspaper Industry’s Need to Change
March 13, 2012
The Wall Street Journal’s Papers Put Faith in Firewalls perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with the publishing industry right now. Instead of celebrating innovation and seeking new ways to adapt to a rapidly-changing media dynamic, the WSJ Russell Adams’ voices the skepticism of the industry, the very same skepticism which has led to the newspaper industry eschewing change in favor of increasingly stagnant and outdated revenue models.
If “metathesiophobia” is the fear of change, then we need to come up with a new term for fear of changing business models. And make no mistake about it, newspapers need to change. In a new Pew Research Center study on the state (or fate) of the publishing industry, one newspaper executive lamented: "There's no doubt we're going out of business right now."
But the Pew study reveals that these prescient executives still live in a culture paralyzed by fear. The Pew study describes this fear in detail, interviewing newspaper executives who reveal a culture of “inertia” that make innovation impossible to achieve within newspapers. According to
the Pew report, many executives won’t risk trying to change their approach to revenue because their publications would fail anyway and they’d be blamed for it. “There might be a 90-percent chance you’ll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10-percent chance you might find the new model. No one is willing to take that chance,” explained one beleaguered executive.
Is this really what has become of the fourth branch of government? Sitting around passively accepting their fate? Is this how they intend to honor classic journalists, some of whom risked their lives to bring us the highest quality reporting? We need a free, independent media to not just survive, but thrive. It’s time for publishing leadership to either lead or move aside in favor of those who can.
The Wall Street Journal rightly highlights the success of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Pearson’s Financial Times (who also happens to be a Zuora partner). But the author claims these are the “exceptions” to the rule rather than what they truly are: the leaders in the space.
These pioneering icons won’t be going back to a free model. Free is going away, and newspapers need to understand this. People have already shown that they will pay for quality content, and now it’s a matter of newspapers understanding this and adapting to it... quickly.
The truth is, when newspapers begin to think creatively about their approaches to digital, they’re more likely to succeed. The Economist handed the keys to all of their online content to its Tablet Chief, Oscar Grut. The Washington Post hired Rob “Cmdr Taco” Malda, the founder of Slashdot, to overseer its online strategy. These are people who don’t come from 40 years of journalism experience, but instead have a background in digital content that newspapers so desperately need.
Paywalls aren’t a perfect solution, but they’re a start. Next, we’ll begin to see subscriptions that cater to a variety of consumers-- frequent readers, fans of the Sunday sections, or just the occasional browser. We need publishers to have this power and this relationship with the customer, and not cede it to Apple or Google, who have been all too happy to control content while the print industry struggles.