Digital paywalls still have a way to go

I imagine one of the top questions keeping editors and proprietors of newspapers and periodicals awake at night is how to keep their organs profitable. We might like to think that all they worry about is how to bring the truth to their readers, but, deep down, we know that the bottom line is… well, their bottom line. Journalism is about business as much as anything else. Unlike countries, if newspapers cannot balance their books they will simply go under.

Revenue, therefore, is king. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from – if the revenue stops then the publication stops. Either that or it becomes an amateur affair, which doesn’t do much for a journalist’s career. Sales, advertising, associated commercial activity, subscriptions, licence fees, donations and charitable foundations all fund journalism.

What is important, however, is that the funding model works. If that model is based on readers paying for what they read, then they should pay. It’s like tax. No one particularly likes paying tax and most of us think about avoiding it (in morally acceptable ways, of course), but we kinda know we should pay what we are supposed to pay. Governments and most members of the public do not like it very much when people do not pay their dues. Likewise, the movie industry doesn’t care for piracy, the music industry doesn’t care for illegal file-sharing, and the publishing industry, I would imagine, doesn’t much like it when their readers circumvent expensively erected paywalls.

More and more publications are going behind paywalls: the Times, the Spectator and the Telegraph for starters. There are probably more, but my reading list is limited. I should probably branch out a bit. But never mind, these examples are enough. Advertising, as a business model, has its limitations, and some publishers obviously see merit in the exclusivity of making readers pay up front for their offerings.

The problem, however, with technology, especially the cutting-edge variety, is that errors are common. I bet Johannes Gutenberg, for example, had a few teething problems when he first brought the printing press to Europe in the mid-15th Century. Early-phase glitches are to be expected in any technological project. But by the later 20th Century, when digital media was being rolled out to the masses, the process of dead-tree printing was, I’m sure, pretty well perfected.

Yet digital publishing today is about as advanced as movable-type printing at the time of Gutenberg, who was no doubt the tech poster-boy of his era. Digital publishing is in its early phase of development, which means: a) the extent of its impact is still not fully comprehended; and, b) there are glitches. Specifically, there are glitches in the way paywalls operate, especially in the way they try to prevent illicit reading of their material.

Developers involved in this area may be aware of most problems, but here are a couple of examples they might have missed. First, the Spectator. This excellent publication used to make all of its website material free to anyone who happened to visit the site (‘Thank you!’). But now its premium content is behind a paywall (‘Damn you!’). It tends to offer mostly the good stuff: interesting and, above all, well written. Their articles aren’t too long, either, which is  useful for those with the attention span of a mouse, like me. There is, however, a way round their paywall, as follows:

Go to the url of an article and you will likely see something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 16.20.57

Annoying, huh? And not just because this so-called Bitcoin thing intrigues you, not to mention the chance to make money on it, or just to stick it to the man. The goddamn internet is meant to be free! It’s all about the free, and people trying to make you pay for stuff on it is just plain wrong. Well, no actually. Getting stuff for free can be great, when you don’t have money, but free stuff can also seem, on occasions, a little devalued. And we should not forget that journalists need to make a living like anyone else.

But the glitch: If you’re not that bothered about journalists starving in the gutter, you can read the article another way. And I don’t mean by taking out a subscription or wrestling the only copy held in your local library from the elderly tramp-gentleman currently using it as a pillow. What you do is this: send the article to www.getpocket.com, where you can read it at your leisure. Not all articles can be read this way, but a lot of them can. It’s something to do with the difference in rendering pages directly on a website and through a third-party application. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Spectator developers to rectify.

Exactly the same thing happens on the Telegraph. Send an article to Pocket, after you have gone over your free monthly limit, and you can read the full piece without being asked to subscribe. There is also another glitch with the Telegraph, this time with www.ifttt.com. IFTTT stands for ‘if this then that,’ and is a service that enables you to make ‘recipes’ comprising trigger and action. For example, IFTTT will automatically save your email attachments to Dropbox if that is what you want. Mashable thought these recipes were quite funny – hilarious was their word. But you can also use IFTTT to send Telegraph articles from behind their paywall to Pocket using an RSS feed.

I do not mention these glitches to encourage people to read for free the things for which they are meant to pay. I happen to think, as I do for tax, that we should not circumvent the system (Although there is probably a difference between avoidance and evasion, which would need a separate discussion to explain, and neither am I entirely sure into which category reading paywall content through third-party applications falls). Quality journalism costs money, and people have a right to earn a living.

No, the reason is simply to highlight the glitch, because, well, you know, I noticed it – and, of course, to let developers know what they might have overlooked. Yet probably they haven’t. They probably figure, quite rightly I’d say, that messing about with RSS feeds, third-party applications and idle time is not what most people can be bothered to do; and if they do, then it’s probably not going to break their business model, and they’ll get it sorted out at their next Scrum meeting anyway.

But the frontiers of the digital world are moving rapidly at the moment. Innovators and entrepreneurs are pushing ever westwards, trying new things every day. Many will fail, but the innovative process stops for no one. And the publishing industry is trying to keep up with all this change, not least because it fears for its very survival if it does not. Whoever can protect revenues will thrive; the rest will wither and go out of business, eventually. I don’t suppose these two glitches will cause too many sleepless nights, but someone might like to take a look at them.

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