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Learning to love the pay wall

Response encouraging as print biz navigates from free system

When Variety first established its paywall limiting online access, Jim Romenesko, an influential aggregator of media news, said he didn’t like directing readers to sites with such impediments to perusing the goods.

For journalists, the prospect of sacrificing patronage from a venue like Romenesko’s feels like a gut punch. By our very nature we want our work seen by the widest audience possible. It can be similarly frustrating when observations we make and news we break wind up being attributed to others doing follow-up stories.

Still, given the trend lines — newspapers closing, staffs reduced, TMZ setting the tone for the journalistic world — the balance between ego gratification and the blessings of a solvent employers has, for many, perhaps shifted. So with apologies to Dr. Strangelove, it’s worth exploring how some of us have learned to stop worrying and love the paywall.

Prickly questions of paywall politics are only becoming more complicated, for content producers of video as well as print, in the digital domain.

Everyone is wrestling with how to get paid for their product. The New York Times recently began restricting its Web access — and subsequently slashed in half the number of free stories available. News Corp. — having long commanded payment for the Wall Street Journal — moved in that direction with its U.K. newspapers, as has the Los Angeles Times.

Not surprisingly, there’s resistance to ponying up cash for what has been free (though Variety, as a trade, plays a slightly different game than consumer publications). Yet if aggregators start finding it more difficult to link to heavyweight publications like the Times and Journal, feeder sites — those that compile or riff on reporting by others — could potentially experience a significant void in their daily menus.

The New York Times sought to keep its content “blogger-friendly” to encourage highlighting its stories. Still, assuming promiscuous linkage undermines prodding people to ante up (why buy the cow when the milk’s free?), that strategy represents a delicate balancing act — essentially saying, “Feel free to steal this book, but be sure to credit us if you quote from it.”

Concrete answers remain elusive, just as TV producers and distributors are grappling with the proper formula for distributing TV-quality Web series, as evidenced by Netflix’s evolving strategy. Because video often comes with a higher pricetag, a blanket commitment to “free, with ads” appears to represent a model that can’t hold indefinitely.

Other publishers have been closely watching the Times’ paywall progress, with some finding the results encouraging. “We are really all in this together as an industry as we try to figure out what works,” Wayne Parrish, chief operating officer of Postmedia Network Canada Corp., told the Globe and Mail.

Eventually we’ll all know who was right — though if history is any judge, those who profess the most certainty now should probably be trusted the least.

Moreover, competitive zeal has a way of erasing the whole “we’re all in this together” mind-set. Instead, operations working without paywalls tend to be pretty snarky toward those who have them.

As a case in point, witness the gibes unleashed on the New York Times when an apparently deranged man tried to scale its building, reportedly saying he was looking for a newspaper. The Twitterati pounced, letting fly a barrage of jokes about the lengths to which people will go to sidestep the new paywall.

Nevertheless, the words of Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts echo from an interview he gave two years ago. During the Cable Show, Roberts enthusiastically discussed the prospect of capitalizing on new means of distribution such as the iPad — as opposed to viewing them as the enemy — but stressed the need to make media consumption more transactional, referencing newspapers in saying, “Page views don’t pay bills.”

Frankly, though, there might be a simpler rejoinder to naysayers from those situated behind the gates of a pay model — one that should keep even the most egomaniacal journalists from climbing the walls, and could become increasingly common in all forms of media: “Hey, at least some people are willing to pay to see my crud,” they could say. “What about yours?”

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