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.

Some thoughts on blogging and writing

There’s something about bloggers, isn’t there? Something you can’t quite bring yourself to say, for reasons of inclination or enervation, either will do, despite occasionally or perhaps frequently thinking it. That they’re… well, a bit weird.

Hunched for hours over the internet, filling their heads with its unending babble before adding to the general melee by posting their own very special opinions, comments, photos and links to cats doing cute things as if that’s exactly what civilisation needed right now. (Okay, here are the cats). And if that’s not enough, something new is only ever a click away. It’s all growing at such an exponential rate it wouldn’t be surprising if it overtook the universe any day now. Then what? Someone should look into that.

For people of a certain age, the sense of weirdness probably stems from childhood. In those days, people who spent most of their time on computers were seen as geeks: techy people not much good at sport or lading about in the park – important things like that. A hobby without human interaction was the answer, and in the eighties and nineties that meant computers – comics were mainly seventies and before, I think, although their appeal to a certain type still proves interestingly stubborn.

Computer geeks played games. Some wrote games, while others programmed the dos or whatever that thing was that made computers do stuff back then. There was a sense that these people were missing out in some way – on friends and girlfriends mainly, but also other things, the absence of which gave the impression they belonged to an odd sect of secluded youth.

But who is laughing now? The geeks, of course. Geeks, or swots as they are otherwise known, have always been the ones laughing in the end, because they learn useful things at school and university which they later turn into money-making schemes, often involving the word app. The former geeks are today’s success stories – Branson? Hawking? Tempah? (Tinie Tempah, the London rapper, if you don’t know). Geeks, the lot of them. Okay, so TT can’t spell, which you would have thought, being a geek, he would have sorted out by now, but that’s incidental.

Geeks rule! Remember teen movies? Of course you do. Still watching them, aren’t you. In the best of them, the jocks were the deadbeats, even though there was always a sense that they weren’t. Alongside the jocks (although seemingly in competition) were the ‘alternatives’, but they wore black and opted out not because they were proper geeks but because they were too cool for school, only in different ways – still deadbeats. But those paying attention, and adults, including the film makers themselves, knew who was going to amount to something in the end. Yes, the math-club-science-club dweeb. They kept telling us, for goodness sake.

So there’s still a sense – certainly in older generations – that people with their faces in computers, including bloggers, are a bit geeky and therefore a bit weird, despite the reality being quite different. In fact, if you want an explanation of the generational divide, then look no further than TV shows like the IT Crowd and the Big Bang Theory. Although created by people you might consider a bit old, like Graham Linehan and Chuck Lore, they have turned geek-jock lore on its head. Youth gets it. Geeks have now got it and the jocks are the joke – when they actually feature.

At the root of blogging is a desire to be noticed. It’s a cruel irony, therefore, that there is probably no better way to remind yourself how people aren’t noticing you than to write a blog post. We have the hyper-bloggers, of course – Andrew SullivanGuido Fawkes and the blogging teams at places like the Telegraph and the Guardian – but they are the exception. Everyone else – the everyday chumps – continue to be ignored. Take Twitter, the micro-blogging site – there’s absolutely no better way to get ignored by famous people than tweeting them your witty jokes. Go on, try it. If you really want to (and sometimes if you don’t) you can get noticed in other ways, such as by threatening to blow up an airport or saying you don’t like someone because they smell funny, but that’s not the sort of recognition most bloggers are looking for.

Except this argument is a load of old rubbish, too. Proper geeks (you remember – the people who actually get it and know their geekness is in fact their route to success), proper geeks know how to use these things properly. They don’t howl at the wind and wonder why the wind doesn’t engage them in stimulating, warm-hearted dialogue. They build and talk to networks of like-minded individuals or fellow tech people who can help them crowd source ideas and stuff like that which most people including me don’t really understand. For them it serves a constructive, Berners-Lee-type purpose of generous digital engagement and horizon expansion.

I’m not sure most other people get that. Of course, there will be the odd individual who just wants to write stuff down and put it out there for no other reason than that. They might fancy themselves as a professor-like character only interested in studying the properties of spider webs for its own mind-expanding sake. A bit like writers or diarists who just have to write because that’s, like, what makes them tick and without it they’d, like, stop breathing or something. Maybe these people exist, but I’d say not many. Most writers want to be noticed, and most of them want to sell you their writing, too, a bit like celebrities selling you the impression you have a special connection in return for you buying their stuff or perpetuating their fame.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but, at the bottom of it, celebrities just want to sell you something. They try to do it directly (if they’re not very imaginative) or they try to do it indirectly. They might tell you about their day or what they had for breakfast in the belief that whoever is reading their missives will think that, in return for such personal information, the least they can do is buy the DVD box set or whatever else is being hawked at the time.

It’s all marketing, and you’re the mark. Think of it a bit like someone mugging you in the shopping centre aisles to buy their sparkly mobile phone cover, only it’s done cyberwebically and you’ve invited them over by liking or following them. They don’t even have to see you coming, you’ll come right over to their little market stall and ask for the damn things.

I keep getting pushed off this weirdness idea. Perhaps that’s because it’s not weird at all, and the thought that it might be only endures because of childhood misunderstanding. There’s nothing new in writing stuff no one will notice. People used to write diaries with no expectation of public recognition – the politico diaries one finds in bookshops were never proper diaries, always pension pots and opportunities to further the author’s legend or correct some inconvenient public misconception about their conduct in public office.

True, proper diaries are not shown to the public like blog posts, but so what, we’ve established that most blogs are not read by anyone anyway. Publishing them online merely represents the modern way of writing. If nothing else, it just looks a little more serious, professional, contemporary.

People also paint pictures and take photographs without expecting public recognition. A whole variety of hobbies and pastimes exist that result in little more than a memory of something done that they found interesting. And writing is just the same. People do it because they like to. Recognition would be nice, money better, but it doesn’t really matter. None of that will come anyway unless you write something in the first place. People write and blog because they like the shapes and images the letters make on the page and in their minds, just like artists; and if you think that’s weird, well, then YOUR weird.