Clay Shirky has a long, fair, but also devastating post on the Times and Sunday Times' experiment in online subscriptions. (Full disclosure: I have a column with the latter.) The data are very hard to pin down, but Shirky calculates an unsurprising 97 percent collapse in web traffic, at a moment when some media bosses are seriously considering a shift back to paywalls. Shirky retreats to basics:

The “paywall problem” isn’t particularly complex, either in economic or technological terms. General-interest papers struggle to make paywalls work because it’s hard to raise prices in a commodity market. That’s the problem. Everything else is a detail.

The classic description of a commodity market uses milk. If you own the only cow for 50 miles, you can charge usurious rates, because no one can undercut you. If you own only one of a hundred such cows, though, then everyone can undercut you, so you can’t charge such rates. In a competitive environment like that, milk becomes a commodity, something whose price is set by the market as a whole.

Owning a newspaper used to be like owning the only cow, especially for regional papers. Even in urban markets, there was enough segmentation–the business paper, the tabloid, the alternative weekly–and high enough costs to keep competition at bay. No longer.

The internet commodifies the business of newspapers. Any given newspaper competes with a few other newspapers, but any newspaper website compete with all 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...

Most of the historical hope for paywalls assumed that through some combination of reader desire and supplier persuasiveness, the current form of the newspaper could survive the digital transition without significant alteration. Payalls, as actually implemented, have not accomplished this. They don’t expand revenue from the existing audience, they contract the audience to that subset willing to pay. Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them.


Murdoch and News Corp, committed as they have been to extracting revenues from the paywall, still cannot execute in a way that does not change the nature of the organizations behind the wall. Rather than simply shifting relative subsidy from advertisers to users for an existing product, they are instead re-engineering the Times around the newsletter model, because the paywall creates newsletter economics. As of July, non-subscribers can no longer read Times stories forwarded by colleagues or friends, nor can they read stories linked to from Facebook or Twitter. As a result, links to Times stories now rarely circulate in those media. If you are going to produce news that can’t be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn’t care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo. This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.

Shirky's response to critics is well worth absorbing as well.

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