As you may have heard, the Globe and Mail just put most of their content behind a paywall. (Careful about clicking that link if you’re not a subscriber: you now only get 10 free articles per month.) As it happens, on the very day they launched their experiment with monetizing their website, I read a report from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University on the problem of making money in the news business these days. It’s called “Be the Disruptor” and launches with some buzzwordy buzzwordiness about “disruptive innovation,” but it’s really quite a perceptive paper. It’s written by Clayton M. Christensen—a Harvard Business School professor, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and leading world expert on disruptive innovation—and by David Skok, a Canadian who is serving a Nieman Fellowship to study the challenges of the news biz in the internet era.
So, what do these guys say about paywalls? Let’s have a look at page 12, in the vitally import section entitled “Always consider the audience first”:
As managers at media organizations consider instituting changes to their business model—perhaps by charging for content that they previously freely provided online—they should ask whether their organization is doing such an outstanding job of satisfying consumers’ needs that consumers will pay for their content. This is particularly the case if you’re in a commoditized space where other organizations are providing very similar content for free. In addition, it’s critical to avoid falling into the trap of believing that you can charge for content just because it costs money to produce.
Hmmm. The Globe certainly has excellent journalists breaking big news. (Hey! The Globe just broke a story in Toronto politics—about the very personal customer service provided to the mayor by the city’s transportation department—follow the link from this Tweet and the story won’t even count towards your quota, if I understand the Globe system right.) But does it provide news and analysis that you will not get from one of the other three full-scale daily newspapers in Toronto, or from its three commuter dailies, or from any of the 10 or more broadcast news departments covering the same beats, or the weekly newsmagazine it also competes with, and from the hundreds or thousands of bloggers tilling the same earth? Because all of those outlets are still providing their coverage for free—coverage of the same issues, beats, and major stories that the Globe covers. Is the Globe so far superior to its online competitors that people will pay for the privilege of getting the Globe’s take on things rather than settling for the Star’s, or the CBC’s, or mine? Is its commentary and analysis so distinct—ahem, insert your own Wente joke here—that people will pay for it rather than just settle for one of the many other sources of commentary pushing themselves on us?
The New York Times—the world’s paper of record, really—has made a bet that its brand is strong enough to attract paying customers in a free-for-all market. Famously, the Wall Street Journal’s business pages have been required reading for business types, enough so that people have been willing to pay for them.
Is the Globe in a similar position? I guess we’ll find out. But the world’s leading expert on disruptive innovation doesn’t really say anything positive about paywalls in the report he co-authored with Skok. It’s a report worth reading (available—FREE!—as an ebook or PDF or for web reading).
Screenshot of Globe publisher’s letter announcing the paywall from the Globe and Mail website.