CLay Shirky on the Times Paywall – welcome to the future

Clay Shirky

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Here’s a considered piece from Clay Shirky on the Times Paywall, which he considers nothing new, and its impact. It’s a good summary of the conversation about “the future of newspapers” that’s been circulating for the last twenty years or so. As Shirky indicates in the article, we’re no longer really talking about the future of newspapers – we’re talking about their present. As Brad Paisley said, welcome to the future. Snip:

The internet commodifies the business of newspapers. Newspapers compete with other newspapers, but newspaper websites compete with other websites. As Nicholas Carr pointed out during the 2009 pirate kidnapping, Google News found 11,264 different sources for the story, all equally accessible. The web puts newspapers in competition with radio and TV stations, magazines, and new entrants, both professional and amateur. It is the war of each against all.

My particular take on online news is that if newspapers want to make money from news, they’ve got to stop giving it away for free online. That doesn’t mean that I think a paywall will ever work, but that it makes no business sense to print a newspaper and make its content available online free of charge.

By all means, provide teasers, some indication on a web site of what’s in today’s paper and where/how to get it, but restrict the actual reading of the content to those who buy the paper copy. If that’s the business you’re in, that’s the business: selling papers.

Shirky argues that the Times online is now a newsletter with a very select (and self-selecting) readership. Which begs the question I often ask my students: what exactly is it that newspapers do in the 21st century?

They haven’t been in the business of breaking news since radio news became a medium in its own right in the late 1920s. If you want today’s news, listen to the radio, watch TV, or read it online. If you do, say, listen to Radio 4’s Today programme, you will discover that 90% of “news” consists of speculation and pre-announcements of announcements, meetings, speeches, government policies, parliamentary debates etc. Yesterday in Parliament gives you a brief taste of yesterday’s speeches in Parliament. Most of the time government bypasses all that in favour of press releases and conferences.

There’s not much investigative journalism on TV and radio (unless you count the occasional documentary strand, or once-per-week in-depth report). BBC journalists aren’t really allowed to give a solid opinion on what’s happening in the news.

In other words, what newspapers have always been really good at: investigative reports, soft news, opinion columns and commentary; are still in their purview. That’s what they should concentrate on: people actually like to read newspapers so that they know what to think.

Being able to do that job, and do it well, doesn’t really require a web presence. Yes, we all read off the screen these days, but for an in-depth think piece or commentary, paper still works well. Paper, and, maybe, your iPad app.

I think if newspapers took all the commentary and opinion off the web, people would miss it — and go looking for it, wherever it is.

via The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics « Clay Shirky.