Mathew Ingram, writing in GigaOm, offers three reasons he doesn't like paywalls. His second reason is "Paywalls are backward-looking, not forward-looking," which is the one that resonates with me.
Before the Internet, news orgs had a natural paywall, the distribution system. If you wanted to read the paper you had to buy the paper. And the ink, and the gasoline it took to get it to where you are. In fact, everything that determined the structure of the news activity, that made it a business, was organized around the distribution system.
But that's been over now for quite some time. And paywalls express a desperate wish to go back to a time when there was a reason to pay. Now news, if it wants to continue, must find a new reason.
I think there are plenty of ideas here. But linear problem-solution thinking won't get you there. This is the box we have to get out of. Because change comes whether or not our minds can conceive of it. That's the magic of new generations. Their minds are not limited the way ours are. Things we feel will "always" be one way really never are.
I always thought my generation would be different, but you have to work at keeping your mind agile. For one reason or another, I have been blessed with the ability to do this. This gets people angry with me. To me the world looks like one big crowd of folks yelling "Who does he think he is!" -- which has taught me to appear more humble than I really am. I'm pretty sure I understand where news is heading.
The model of news we used to practice was started to solve a business problem. A guy named Reuters who lived in London, wanted to know what was going on in the markets elsewhere in Europe. He found that the faster he got this information, the more money he could make. Then he learned that he could sell access to the flow of information for even more money. Then he wanted information from America. So he invested some of his profits from Europe in better ways of doing that.
We went from horses and boats, to carrier pigeons, to telegraphs, to cross-Atlantic cables, all to drive better access to information. And huge fortunes were made doing it.
That's a simplification of course, but it's the basic idea. Information wasn't flowing well. You could make money by making it flow better. And that led to more efficiencies. And then it branched out into other kinds of news because they affected market prices. And eventually a new model emerged, of news as entertainment that could cause people to watch advertisements.
You can see this in a movie starring Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Reuters. It's not a great movie. But it does help explain the idea.
Now, I live in NYC. I really like living here. But the Internet in NYC is a lot like news flow in Europe before Reuters revolutionized it. It really sucks for most of us. Why couldn't someone make it their business to solve this problem? If they do, I believe they will become the news organization of the future. Assuming people still want to live in NYC. And it seems that quite a few people do!
I think you have to look at things this way. Where are the inefficiencies, and can you do something to erase them? If so, that's probably a good business. But like all businesses, there are risks, and no guarantees. You have to try it before you know if it works. Most big news thinkers are not business people, so they don't seem to understand this. But the tech guys do think this way. And that's why that's where the new forward-looking movement is coming from.
Paywalls go the other way, they remove efficiencies. It's hard to see how, long-term, that can be profitable.
What paywalls are really asking is how are the news people of the past going to hold their lock on the flow of information in the future. And that's not a great question, because the answer is they aren't. Let's hope no one does. But of course that's a lot to hope for.
PS: I love how my random algorithm chooses header images for Scripting News. Today's choice is from a remote stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway in Saskatechewan. I drove there in 2004, going from Boston to Seattle.