Disclaimer: this post is not about design, it is about content. Whether we like it or not, the way we view online content has to (and will) change. When I say change I mean ending the rein of free content. It’s just not going to work in the long run. It has been clearly proven that sustainable revenue cannot be produced purely from online banner ads, they simply do not pay the bills of a medium to large sized newspaper or magazine. This leads to the obvious solution of the dreaded… paywall.
So, let’s start off by agreeing that getting stuff for free is fun. Obviously I would rather go to an Iron Chef’s restaurant and eat for free than spend my hard earned cash, but sadly that is never the case and for quality food I need to open my wallet. People work hard to produce quality stuff and it is only fair they get paid for their hard work. We live in a society where everything is give and take, and without that process society would surely collapse.
Then why is the internet any different?
I am not against free content. I don’t mean to promote putting pay walls on every site out there. I can’t imagine adding a pay wall to my site for example, and I am sure that if I was ever to do so, I would lose many (if not all) of my readers. The decision to add one needs to be judged case by case.
Free content can be a positive thing. There’s even something philosophical about having free content/knowledge accessible anywhere at any time. I believe, to some extent, that it is the natural evolution of democracy. Wikipedia is the best example. Knowledge there is produced for and by the people. I would go so far as saying that adding a paywall to such establishments would be going a step backwards in our democracy.
Having said that, journalists need to be paid. A newspaper or magazine cannot live on charity, and we cannot rely on blogs to provide us with our news. Without money, how would a newspaper send a journalist to cover the war in Afghanistan or uncover secrets hidden to us by our government. That means, not having a paywall, would hurt our democracy as well.
Lets take this conversation and put it into a micro-cosmos of our own small web design world, associating it with recent events. Many of you may have noticed a few days ago, that Smashing Magazine decided to pull down their content and in place put a splash page promoting their new book. I am not really sure if this was because they are in financial distress or simply because they wanted to promote the book. Never-the-less the move got me thinking about the pay wall, especially when it hit so close to home. Seeing that notification got me worried. If our largest online webdesign magazine cannot sustain it’s web presence, we’re really screwed no?
The way I see it, we need to combine both the world of paid content, and the world of free content. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like a hard thing to do. Why not take the 37 Signals subscription approach? They provide users with a free plan, that basically doesn’t do a lot, but you still get to use their web app. If you need more features you can simply upgrade to a paid subscription. Why are the content providers so scared of this approach? 37 Signals seem to be doing just fine with it.
Why not simply have 2 channels:
Combining both worlds is the only solution I see. The Wall Street Journal is doing it in their own way. Some content is free, some isn’t. Usually the more in depth / interesting articles are hidden behind a pay wall. Breaking news is usually open to the public and so are the older articles that become irrelevant after time. This system is working just fine for them. They may have less unique visits than cnn.com, but I am sure that they are making more money, so at the end, does it really matter?
I am not trying to be pretentious by saying that I have the solutions, but one thing I can say for sure… Content does not want to be free and shouldn’t be (well, at least not quality content).
Written in New York. © 2013