Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls

On Saturday, Times columnist Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) tweeted that:

I’m not being funny, but you really won’t ever read a better interview with Lady Gaga than mine

And it’s true. The interview in question is, quite frankly, one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. I said as much on Twitter and, according to the statistics provided by link-shortening service, my tweet contributed (at the last count) a paltry 113 clickthroughs to the total of 57,595 that have currently been recorded by that service.

By any measure 60,000 page impressions is a phenomenal amount of readership coming to the Times website that would not otherwise have done so. The actual number of links distributed from person to person is likely to have been even higher, as many Twitter and Facebook users use other third-party link shorteners or share the link in full.

Next month, of course, both the Times and its Sunday stablemate will go behind content paywalls. To view even one article on the website, you will have to pay either £1 for access to the whole site for 24 hours, or £2 for access for a week. For practical purposes that means that articles such as this will become much, much harder to gain any sort of traction in the wider field.

Placing a market value on other people’s writing is incredibly difficult, especially when that market is the internet and there are huge swathes of excellent writing available without the reader having to hand over cash before reading. I think Moran’s one of the few writers I would have the least objection to paying for, but I don’t generally find enough of interest to me in The Times’ print edition to warrant buying the whole thing. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be forced to stop reading 24 hours after popping to the newsagents. One of the reasons Sunday papers’ circulation figures have dropped so dramatically over the last few years is that more people are buying the expanded Saturday editions and spacing out their reading all weekend.

Online, I would have to read a lot more content from the Times’ website than just Moran’s article to make the £1 for 24 hours’ access of comparable value to buying a print newspaper. And to be honest, that’s not really how my reading consumption on the web works: I tend to read articles from all sorts of newspaper sites, blogs and other web sources. A lot of that comes to me via Google Reader, through which I have subscribed to web feeds from a whole array of different websites. An increasing amount, though, comes at the recommendation of others, people I communicate with regularly and trust via Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, I share links, such as Moran’s, that I think people may like to read.

As a system, it works well: I get exposure to many new sources of intelligently written, inspiring pieces of journalism. But that infrastructure of shared links just doesn’t sit well if you are, in effect, asking people to pay a newspaper company a quid to read something you’ve recommended to them. I’m happy to market their work for free if the people I’m marketing to don’t have to pay – but if they do, where’s my cut?

Last week I went to a special recording of the BBC Radio 4 Media Show, with newspaper editors Alan Rusbridger (The Guardian) and John Witherow (Sunday Times) discussing payment walls. The edited 30-minute version of the discussion, which aired last Wednesday, is currently still available on the Radio 4 website. A lot of interesting sides to the argument about content paywalls was discussed. There’s a fundamental difference in ideology between the two editors: Rusbridger sees free-to-access as an essential part of making sure his organisation’s journalism is part of the national (and, increasingly, international) conversation, while Witherow seems prepared to forego that if it means he can pay for big ticket costs including bureaux in Washington DC and Baghdad.

As with any two diametrically opposed arguments, one suspects that any eventual ‘correct’ answer – or answers – to the problem of paying for journalistic content lies somewhere in between. Clearly we need to ensure that news organisations can continue to afford good writers. Because without the money to send them to Berlin to spend the evening getting rat-arsed with pop stars in less-than-salubrious sex clubs, where would good journalism be?

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

2 thoughts on “Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls”

  1. I attended the same session with Witherow and Rusbridger. I came out none the wiser, in part because it felt like a well-trodden path and also because it needs testing out first before a real grasp of what impact paywalls could have on the market as a whole can be understood. I was surprise to hear Witherow say he expected a cut of somewhere around 90% of online readers when the paywall goes up. Either side of the argument, it makes the Times experiment far too delicious to ignore.