Dumbed-Down Content Will Hobble Paywall Strategies

30 Jul

Before the New York Times had a website, if you wanted to learn about what a critic thought of a new movie, the gossip from the runway at a Paris fashion show, or what a pundit said about the latest scandal from Washington, you had to thumb your way into the nether pages of the newspaper to find the stories. Now they are all front-and-center on the Times web home page.

For some, this is progress. The Times online is much less stuffy than it is in print. There are fewer gatekeepers to information because more of it, in greater variety is staring you in the face on, in effect, Page One. All you need do is click.

There’s another view about the Times and other mainstream media populating their online home pages with, shall we say, fluffier content than their print venue. They are dumbing down content to get more eyeballs.

Slate recently shut down its Big Money website because at 400,000 unique visitors a month, it wasn’t enough to attract advertisers. Marketers appear to be looking for sites that can deliver one million+ unique visitors each month as the floor for what we used to call a publication’s circulation.

To get a million or more visitors means kowtowing to the lowest common denominator of online user. And on the Internet low can be pretty common, indeed.

My former employer, Computerworld, had an editorial mission to inform, educate, edify, and, to a certain extent, entertain enterprise-level executives like CIOs, CTOs, and other bigwigs managing information technology. Always perceived as a bit stodgy by some, the trade newspaper did not publish an editorial about Linux until I wrote one in 1999, and it was still considered a bit radical and not very “serious”  an IT subject by some working there at the time.

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that both Computerworld’s print and online properties are awash in copy about Linux and, heaven forbid, Mr. CIO, Macintosh-related information. Precious little of it (sorry, guys) is of great value to CIOs and what they do in their real jobs. But the content’s virtue is that it attracts unique visitors in droves to Computerworld’s website. And the strategy works brilliantly as a business because Apple and Linux fanboys continue to get validation when “stodgy” ol’ Computerworld gives their favorite technology a platform. Although the information has little or nothing to do with publication’s “mission” to serve IT executives, who are much more wrapped up in the strategic tech issues that once dominated the print edition’s pages, it does bring clicks.

I’m not saying the Linux or Mac content on Computerworld or the fashion and movie analysis on the New York Times sites are dumb. Far from it. It’s all insightful, some of the best you’ll read online. However, to compete for the number of eyeballs needed to succeed online, there’s been a tsumani of these dumbed-down stories compared with the editorial standards that once guided the publications.

If media paywalls are ever going to work, they need to raise the level of content. Sensational stories are everywhere. If publications hide behind paywalls their take on the latest about Lindsey Lohan or the iPhone, they will fail miserably. That information is free and worth every penny. For paywalls to succeed, publications need to put their “mission” content, whatever it is, behind them.

In a reverse from days gone by, Page One will be where all of the commodity content appears, while behind the wall, deeper into the publication, that’s where the serious stories will run.

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3 Responses to “Dumbed-Down Content Will Hobble Paywall Strategies”

  1. Shefaly July 31, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    Your title summarises a gaping hole in the paywall strategy. If you remember, NYT experimented with a paywall. Even loyal readers weren’t going to pay for Maureen Dowdy’s rants or Thomas Friedman’s ga-ga views. Good columnists’ content circulated via friends, and search engines served up cached copies. I bet the lost “eyeballs” lost revenue for NYT because they then withdrew it. The trouble with getting the content strategy right of course is that it involves human judgment. Many people read only the front page, while some of us start at the last page. Understanding what % of readers start where and then how they continue should probably inform editorial judgment/ curation for placement. But does it? You tell us.

    • Mark Everett Hall August 1, 2010 at 6:44 am #

      Indeed, there are people who, for example, open to the NYT crossword puzzle and toss the rest of the paper aside. Although, the vast majority of readers come to the NYT newspaper/website for its reporting on events, just as they do the BBC, Der Spiegel, and other great news-gathering sources. We agree on the human-judgment factor. I believe more and better gatekeeping is necessary for any paywall to succeed. Right now, however, it seems, everything on major news sites is geared toward some SEO “expert” view on typical Internet users, which, in that view, must be a celebrity-struck, 14-year-old boys who loves sports, tech gadgets, and trivia. And I’m not sure they have large enough allowances from their parents to fork over some of it for paywalls.

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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Everett Hall, jswartz652. jswartz652 said: RT @croisan: Dumbed-Down Content Will Hobble Paywall Strategies http://bit.ly/cZ1fZn #msm #publishing #computerworld […]

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