Two views on paywalls

The most intuitive way to structure a paywall with respect to premium content — like, say, a longform reported magazine piece or a Snowfall-style multimedia feature — is to offer the cheaper content for free and put the premium stuff behind the gate. I say intuitive simply because it costs you more to produce that stuff; it makes sense, to the extent you’ve decided to charge at all, that you don’t give it away.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the argument for a simpler metered approach where all content counts equally, that came to mind thanks to this quote from Nate Silver (who wasn’t talking at all about paywalls). Here he is via Nieman Lab:

On balancing features and blogging-style analysis

We see them as two related, familial, but separate content silos. From a practical economic standpoint, one of the wonderful things about blogs, as they were originally invented, was you had relatively low transaction cost for producing a blog post. Not that it doesn’t have to be high quality — but you’re not necessarily spending as much of an editor’s time on it, you’re not going through multiple iterations. It’s more thinking about things in real time.
So in some ways, we want to, on our blog, get back more to what we think are the core differentiating values of blogging, and not this kind of in-between space a lot of news organizations have wound up in where everything became called a blog, and then it became unfashionable, so nothing gets called a blog.We do make a distinction based mostly on how quickly the content is turned out. What we call a feature is something where it’s assigned, generally in advance, and goes through at least one, maybe multiple rounds of edits.A blog is something which still has to be very good — and it’s as hard, relatively, to hire bloggers as it is to hire feature writers. It’s something that might get a quick read, and maybe has a little bit more voice, but also saying “this is my thinking in real time,” or my work in progress. How we’ll flesh that out exactly in practice, I’m not sure, but I feel like there is an important distinction to be made between the two.

This got me thinking about the awesomeness of truly good blogging, the way it makes you want to check in every 10 minutes to see if the author has something new to say. It’s why I still want to read everything Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, or Tyler Cowen writes.

Now here’s Silver on balancing between loyal readers and broader traffic:

I think with almost any web product you have two types of audience. You have your core, everyday readers and then you have the people you reach out to from time to time. I think that having the right content mix, where you can have big spikes in content by doing something interesting and different from time to time, but also making sure that people who are reading the site every day feel they’re getting a good healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday, full of FiveThirtyEight content.

All of which made me suddenly reconsider my intuition on paywalls and premium content. I hear Silver making the case for a metered model that treats everything equally. The high quality stuff can “travel” on social, reaching readers who otherwise wouldn’t stop by, and because they haven’t used up their content quota, they can view it for free. It’s essentially a loss leader that attempts to draw in more regular readers. And what those devotees are paying for isn’t high production value or in depth reporting so much as immediacy and consistency. They want to read all (or lots of) what you put out.

We see both models today: The New York Times and The Washington Post are metered; The New Yorker makes it harder to get to its premium magazine content than to its blogs. But when I think about my own willingness to pay (or lack thereof) the metered approach strikes me as a bit more plausible, because it pulls out all the stops to build an affinity to the brand. Put another way, you’re making it extra difficult to gain paying customers when you put your best products out of reach.

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