December 6, 2016 Last Updated 8:19 am

Paywalls: the issue continues to divide the industry – as some begin to lower the wall, others brag about growing digital subs

Morning Brief: Fake news is not just found on Facebook, or on odd, obscure websites, but right out in the open on many of the most popular newspaper websites… in comments

The paywall remains, even years after its first widespread introduction, one of those things that divides the digital publishing industry. Is the future paid content rather than advertising, or a mix of the two?

I can understand the lure of paid readership from journalists, they were never very fond of the ad staff – but they have to understand that the feeling is mutual. It is doubtful that the grips think much of the actors when they flub their lines, or the equipment folk of the jocks. But teams are often made up of personnel in conflict with each other. Ever been married?


My opinion regarding paywalls originates from my time in the B2B publishing industry, rather than my time in newspapers. In B2B you can see where forcing readers to pay really works, and where it doesn’t. Have a publication that provides vital financial information, such as construction bid news, or the latest information on marketing staff turnover? Then readers are willing to pay to get that information first. Have a monthly magazine full of press releases on construction equipment? Then you better use the qualified circulation strategy because few will pay for that.

In the consumer world, you can see why a paywall should work if you are The Wall Street Journal, and why it wouldn’t if you are some weekly newspaper. But somewhere in the middle the two meet. Where it meets is where the argument begins.

But for many publishing executives, their feelings about paywalls is one of ideology rather than logic. Some want to make the little buggers pay, period. Others think the Internet ought to be open and free, period. Both positions are rubbish, but if you think you can persuade any of these folks to change their mind just talk to the bloke who is so damn sure that any regulation of business is a bad thing about the need for Dodd-Frank, and watch them explode in rage.

The Guardian, Peter Preston:

The paywalls come down and readers flood in. But revenue doesn’t

Two growth figures from last week tell the essential story. Though the Mail, Guardian and Mirror still marched upwards with combined (print, mobile, laptop and tablet) readership figures year-on-year, adding more millions to their monthly reach, the shooting star in the Press Premier League was your old mate the Sun: up from 13m in 2015 to 24m last month on the back of a tenfold increase in mobile readers. For 1.6m, read 16.5m.

Staggering stuff – or, at least, it would be if there wasn’t the simple explanation that November 2015 was the month Mr Rupert Murdoch cancelled his last announcement and ordered the Sun paywall knocked down (plus a reworking of the site). Which has all worked out well enough – save perhaps for one dimension the National Readership Survey doesn’t assess: money in the bank from advertising, which is fundamentally what’s left once you cancel the subscription approach.

Robert Feder:

Reboot Illinois moving behind paywall

If you want to read Reboot Illinois, the political journalism website and daily newsletter, now it’s going to cost you.

After four years of free access to its readers, the digital source for news, commentary and analysis about state and local government will be shifting next week to a paid subscription model.

“We’re moving from a public affairs journalism organization primarily supported by seed investments and advertising to one supported mainly by your subscriptions,” publisher Madeleine Doubek emailed readers Thursday.

Nieman Lab, Joseph Lichterman:

The Tulsa Frontier is ditching its pricey paywall and becoming a nonprofit as it attempts to grow

The Tulsa Frontier launched in 2015 in an attempt to take a different approach to local news. The Oklahoma investigative news site was a for-profit outlet behind a paywall, with subscriptions costing $30 a month…

…The Frontier had about 750 subscribers paying $30 per month and “a couple dozen” others who paid for $1,000 annually for higher-tiered subscriptions to support the site, publisher Robert E. Lorton III said. The site’s goal was to get to 1,000 subscribers in its first year.

“We didn’t quite get to 1,000,” Lorton, who goes by Bobby, said. “At 1,000, I would’ve been adding more staff.”

If you do a search for “Pizzagate” or “Comet Pizza” you will come up with a long list of stories being written and appearing on sites like The Washington Post, The Atlantic or other websites. What won’t show up will be results on so-called alt-right websites. Why is this? Aren’t they writing about the story? Didn’t they write about it before the recent gun incident?

Generally, no. This is not how it works. The secret to Breitbart News and other websites is not so much that they spread fake news so much as they rile up their readership to let them do the dirty work.

Take Breitbart News: search the site for a story about Comet Pizza and you won’t find any direct stories on the pizzeria, but instead mention of it in the comments. Here is a screenshot from the comments on a story about an old man from Utah arrested for molesting a local girl.


So, why would this be a story on Breitbart? It isn’t political, it isn’t about some politician, a Democrat? No, but it does provide the opportunity for the Pizzagate conspiracy to be mentioned again in the comments.

This is how it works, generally. It is why I will not subscribe to The Washington Post until it cleans up its comments. Reading its stories prior to the election one would have thought you were reading InfoWars.

I have seen the Post begin to shutdown comments on certain stories. It did so, for instance, on its recent Pizzagate stories.

“Comments are now closed. We turn off the comments on stories dealing with personal loss, tragedies or other sensitive topics,” the Post notice says. But there was no “personal loss” as the man arrested did not injure or kill anyone. But the subject, the Post must now believe, is “sensitive” – unlike all the election stories where readers could accuse Hillary Clinton of murdering Vince Foster or being a security risk being protected by the FBI.

Comment policy is a complicated thing. But the very newspapers who argue that there is a fake news problem, and blame Facebook, are not looking in the mirror, or reading their own websites. Maybe they are print people.


Rise of ‘Fake News’ Gives Brands a Shiver

Growing awareness of fake news and “alt-right” sites have increased brands’ anxiety about where their ads appear. This is especially true of advertisers buying programmatically.

Mike Baker, CEO of DataXu, a programmatic buying platform, said there has been an uptick in clients voicing their concerns about their ads appearing on such sites or next to content where fake news or racist language appears. “The concern that we’ve seen is around what’s perceived as hate speech,” Baker said.

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