I don’t really want to start a skirmish in the blog wars, but I can’t quite figure out what Dan Chmielewski is getting at in his defense yesterday of the OC Register’s paywall (which I didn’t see until today.) He seems to be defending two primary propositions:
(1) that it makes sense that the Register should want a paywall, and
(2) that the Register has the right to set up such a paywall.
OK — I concede both points. As a critic of the paywall — or, as I have called it, the wonderwall — I’ve never said that I didn’t understand why they’d want it or that I thought they didn’t have a right to do it. I’m not sure where Dan C. got that impression from any of the paywall’s critics. Instead, my criticisms have focused in two other areas:
(1) ain’t gonna work
(2) putting a price on basic community information creates problems
I’ll make another concession: the second of these problems is not the Register’s problem to address; it’s a problem for our society as a whole. Collectively, we’re worse off with a less-informed citizenry. The Register’s being freely accessible doesn’t necessarily provide us with a well-informed citizenry, but even their relative monopoly over much news reporting leaves us better off than otherwise. (I think, though, that there’s a strong argument to be made that walling off their editorials while leaving the news content free would leave us with a better-informed citizenry than we had before the paywall. I wish that that were merely a clever joke.)
So let’s take a look at the eight paragraphs of Dan’s editorial and try to figure out where it’s coming from.
Dan explains that companies need income to provide jobs to provide services to customers. OK so far. And if people are able to get that service for free, the company — employment, service quality — suffers. OK. And if it finds a way “to charge for what once was free, and customers revolt…actually being offended at being asked to pay.” Whoa.
I’m not offended by the Register putting up a paywall. I’m just not going to pay. Some of this may be principle, I suppose; most of it is simply that I have better things to do with my limited money than to give them $365/year for a product that I don’t deem to be worth it. If others — Dan, Cynthia Ward, Geoff West — want to pay, fine. I’m just not going to be guilt-tripped by them into thinking that my refusal to pay and actively working around their embargo of news is “destroying journalism.” (When it comes to “destroying journalism,” nothing I could do for the entire rest of my life could match the damage done by even a month of the Register’s editorial page. Ha ha — joke there.)
Some customers seem to be offended by their perception that what the Register offers for these premium prices is the same old stuff, without improvements in proofreading, display, content, etc. (You can read the disgruntled comments yourself in those venues that allow them.) But dissatisfaction with the quality of a product isn’t the same as dissatisfaction with the mere that that product is being sold!
Dan then describes non-paying readers as “freeloaders.” This seems … illiberal. As a taxpayer, I pay for, among other things, educating members of the public to the point where they can (hopefully) read the newspaper in the first place; my tax money goes to government advertising in the paper, to roads that allow it to transport newsprint and ink in and finished product out, and much more. Dan’s argument is along the lines of (ed. note: I had accidentally left out those bolded words and Dan rightly called me on it, though I presume he’d deny even this much) one that — and I’d like to think that he simply didn’t think through the implications, rather than actually believing this — we should get rid of free public libraries because they undercut the market for books, videos, and magazines. Conservatives have actually made that sort of argument; liberals don’t.
(Sudden thought: I wonder how reactions to the payroll vary across lines of income. Hmmm, who besides the Register has the resources to do a survey?)
More generally, the extirpation from one’s analysis of everything that the public has previously done to make the Register’s business plan possible is a conservative folly, unworthy of Dan. My favorite example of this is when Sen. Rick Santorum tried, on behalf of his Pennsylvania constituent Accu-Weather, to get the National Weather Service to stop producing weather reports for free because they were undercutting the market for paid services. I hope I don’t have to explain why I reject that analysis, which overlooks matters such as “who put up the bloody satellites in the first place?”, because someone told me recently that I should use less profanity online.
Dan says that he loves newspapers and asserts that the Register has every right to put up a paywall. I agree. Then he says:
“If you want local news, subscribe to the Register or any number of community weeklies they publish. It’s called the free market that so many Republicans, Conservatives and Libertarians subscribe to over and over again.”
No, that’s not what the free market is; the free market, for example, allows workarounds of the sort that have damaged and ruined many other newspaper paywalls. But the more basic problem is that most people cannot easily fork over $365/year for something, even if it’s good. In OC, perhaps a higher proportion can do so than most, which explains why this is a good target for a high-priced paywall plan. But if you (generalized “you,” not Dan specifically) don’t know people for whom $365/year is a lot of money, I think that you need to get out more. I have no problem with people wanting “local news” and not wanting to pay more money than I can afford. (What are some workarounds? How about a paywall for those features — travel, society, business, real estate, etc. — that are of interest primarily to the people who can afford it? That’s still imperfect — but it would have a much lower social cost.)
Dan notes that once upon a time people paid for internet access via Compuserve and AOL — and we liked it! Well, no — some people paid, but many many many did not, and that was in a time with much more income equality than we have now. People not being able to pay a reasonable price for news is an unnoticed cost of social stratification.
Dan suggests that “[t]he way to change a paper is whether or not you subscribe to it or partonize their advertisers or use the paper’s promotional products (coupons for example) that show value to advertisers.” I honestly don’t expect that the Register would change in response to my, or every other liberal in OC, paying for it. The people with more money than we have in this county like it the way it is. For us, it’s take it or leave it.
Dan concludes — and Cynthia and Geoff have echoed the sentiment here:
[I]f you want to read the Register online, then buy it; Pay for the product like you expect your company’s customers will pay for the product you help produce. The more subscriptions mean more readers. More readers means great value for advertisers and more money coming in to hire new reporters or experienced ones. But don’t complain; the Register has every right in the free market to charge for their work and their product.
Since when is “don’t complain” part of the free market?
Stepping back a bit, the dialogue that I and others (like my apparent-semi-ally-on-this-issue Gustavo Arellano in the Weekly) are having with the Register is not so much about whether they have the right to implement a wonderwall, but how they should do so. There are lots of ways to do it, and the Register’s is the most draconian in the business as well as among (perhaps the) most expensive among generalist daily newspapers. They didn’t have to choose that path. There are ways to do so that will probably help both them and the public, such as allowing access to low cost a la carte articles (and yes, I know about the $2 daily pass) and to “tear that wall down” when it comes to emerging news of great local public interest, such as the recent search and rescue in Trabuco Canyon. Giving them that feedback — “complaining,” in other words — is good. The feedback helps them as they navigate through the unexplored swamp that they’ve entered.
Meanwhile, as my own contribution to journalism, I’m trying to chart the effect of the paywall on the Register‘s popularity. A new installment isn’t due until Friday, but I decided to check early today.
Last Friday, the Register had the 5994th most popular website in the world. Today: it’s rank is 6030, nine slots below the 6021 it held on the day when the wonderwall was raised. It’s too early to say for sure what’s going on — and clearly, for its owners, the importance of an increase in subscriptions would more than outweigh some decline in online popularity– but maybe not too early to suspect. (OJB, by contrast, has risen about 70,000 spots in the past week to 719,065th. Thanks, Register?)
I hope that my noting this doesn’t seem out of line. The free flow of accurate information is good, right?