The Paywall will fail!


No – Murdoch’s not feeling sorry for himself, yet
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

If you are reading this article on a printed copy of the Guardian, what you have in your hand will, just 15 years from now, look as archaic as a Western Union telegram does today. In less than 50 years, according to Clay Shirky, it won’t exist at all. The reason, he says, is very simple, and very obvious: if you are 25 or younger, you’re probably already reading this on your computer screen. “And to put it in one bleak sentence, no medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds…”

His predictions for the fate of print media organisations have proved unnervingly accurate; 2009 would be a bloodbath for newspapers, he warned – and so it came to pass. Dozens of American newspapers closed last year, while several others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, moved their entire operation online. The business model of the traditional print newspaper, according to Shirky, is doomed; the monopoly on news it has enjoyed ever since the invention of the printing press has become an industrial dodo. Rupert Murdoch has just begun charging for online access to the Times – and Shirky is confident the experiment will fail.

Everyone’s waiting to see what will happen with the paywall – it’s the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don’t think the numbers add up.” But then, interestingly, he goes on, “Here’s what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they’re critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn’t want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times…”

Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the spontaneous collective campaigns and social activism also emerging. The potential civic value of all this hitherto untapped energy is nothing less, Shirky concludes, than revolutionary…

“The final thing I’d say about optimism is this. If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”

RTFA. Interesting, provocative. Having wandered through this cyber-landscape for a larger number of years than either the protagonist or antagonist – I’ve been online since 1983 – I have a passing acquaintance at least with each facet of the discussion.

Like Shirky, I agree with him because I want to. Though that’s an equal part reflection from someone who is a hermit in real life as much as online.

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