a curious Yankee in Europe's court

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If you can pay, here’s the news: Murdoch’s paywall

Posted on the July 5th, 2010

Yesterday a friend tried to send me a copy of an article in the Times, the UK newspaper that is now secreted behind a paywall, its online content available to paid subscribers only.

The article, so my friend wrote, was an interview with someone whose life story reminded her of a personal situation I had discussed with her recently. So, being a good friend, she took the trouble of scanning the article into an email for me.

Unfortunately some technical glitch messed it up, and all I got was html code instead of text. I asked her to try again and I’m waiting for the re-send.

In the meantime, in spite of knowing about the paywall, I clicked on the Times website to search for the article. Immediately, up popped a page saying either pay us or go bye bye.

Annoyance compounded! How do I mean this? Months ago when I read about media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s insistence that his News Corp newspapers be swaddled behind a paywall, I felt vaguely, though truly, annoyed by what seems to me a clear outbreak of Ludditus

But yesterday, I felt a personal sting from this imposition by Murdoch that access to information be only available to those able to pay. It feels a violation of what more and more seems to be a crucial human right — open access to a free flow of information. And, furthermore, the idea that a simple paywall can restore profits in today’s complex media-scape of vast options doesn’t seem probable.

Newspaper paywalls (I hope!) are futile wishful thinking for the claustrophobic old days when circulation and audience markets were sitting ducks. Readers and viewers were imprisoned by a relatively small number of news and entertainment outlets — it was quite awful for those of us who were there and remember.

So I perked up today when I came across an interview with Internet technologies expert Clay Shirky in the Guardian (“Clay Shirky: ‘Paywall will underperform – the numbers don’t add up'” by Decca Aitkenhead, July 5, 2010). I noted especially the following segment:

Rupert Murdoch has just begun charging for online access to the Times – and Shirky is confident the experiment will fail.

“Everyone’s waiting to see what will happen with the paywall – it’s the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don’t think the numbers add up.” But then, interestingly, he goes on, “Here’s what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they’re critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn’t want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times.”

I like that last sentence so much, I want to pluck it out and highlight it again:

In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times.

Raise your hand if you want to be locked out, again.

UPDATE – July 20, 2010: “Murdoch’s First Newspaper Paywall Not Off to a Great Start” by Henry Blodget, Huffington Post

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