What Are Newspapers Buying with a Paywall?

It’s not breaking news to say there is constant change in the media world. In the last two weeks the much beloved New Orleans Times Picayune announced it’s transitioning from a daily print to a thrice weekly publication along with severe newsrooms cuts. David Carr’s column “A Doomed Romance with a New Orleans Newspaper ” gives us the long and short of it.

So it’s a Bear market. Leave print now or be doomed!

Then again, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway is buying papers and this isn’t charity, this is a market move based on the potential strength of newspapers. Buffett warns that newspapers have to rethink “free” but anything Buffett does/says draws immediate attention from other investors wanting to cash in.

“We must rethink the industry’s initial response to the Internet. The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model…”

With the New York Times pay-fence showing some signs of success, perhaps it’s a Bull market for newspapers after all?

What are we to make of this back and forth? For starters, it’s important to make a distinction about local vs. global news. Both the Times Picayune and Buffett’s purchases focus on local news. A betting man would guess their limited resources will be pushed into local relying on wire services like the AP for global content. But that’s another post.

A more interesting question is on the debate of free vs. paid content. It’s one that has David Simon of Treme and The Wire all ire’d up at CJR. Indeed, it has been the great conversation in media for at least the last two years.

But there is a giveaway in that phrase “free vs. paid content.”

Opponents of paywalls often say “information wants to be free.” But what newspapers are selling isn’t information. For the most part they sell content. I’ll grant it’s a specific type of content that uses information as brick and mortar, but it is not pure information. I discuss this distinction in my last post on the Circa blog “The Right Package for the Right Information” and you can expect it to be an ongoing theme. Jeff Jarvis does this topic even more justice in his recent post “News Articles as Assets and Paths.”

So can newspapers erect paywalls around content? Sure, if that’s their prerogative. It just might work too. Producing news articles and putting them behind a paywall is a great idea if what people want is content.

But what if they just want information? If that’s the case it will be much harder to ask folks to pay and even doubly hard to meet their desires with an outdated form (the article). The best use cases of information trumping content might be around trials. Have you already been following the George Zimmerman or health care trials? Then instead of some content in article form to digest maybe you just want the latest information. “Today the defense rests” or “the jury decided unanimously innocent on X charges.”

These are snippets of information. What Jarvis calls “assets.” They are facts. Once known, they are free. They might be incorporated into content and then put behind a paywall, but the information, which is at the heart of the news, will remain free.

Is the distinction between ‘content’ and ‘information’ fair? More importantly would people pay for access to information over or instead of content? If so, what type of information (Wall Street numbers being the obvious affirmative).

These are questions the news industry doesn’t seem to ask itself but is very much at the heart of Circa.