Column: Paywalls and the pay-what-you-want economy
December 13, 2012 | Chris Koentges | Comments
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Marketing
More than we want to subvert the paywall, we want to pay for great content
When new economy people talk about pay-what-you-want, they fixate on Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Louis C.K.’s “free” $5 comedy special (both of which are unique masterpieces, but that seems to be beside the point). The Freakonomics team, which is obsessed with the infinite twists on these seemingly paradoxical schemes, went so for as to build an experiment into a preview screening of their own movie. The minimum you could pay to attend was nothing, the most was $100.
Of the 5,000 who bought tickets, eighteen paid $100. This baffled freakonomist Stephen J. Dubner, who loves it when a contractor asks what he wants to pay for a service. “My answer is always the same,” he says. “‘What I want to pay is zero. Does that work for you?’”
For a long time, I shared this sensibility. Then I went to Amman, where an entire pay-what-you-want economy seemed to exist. No price I offered was ever refused, and I felt good about these transactions.
It culminated in a small tobacco shop where I found myself holding an authentic Khalil Mamoon hookah. The owner knew immediately that I understood its value. When I asked him the cost, he asked: “What do you want to pay?” I low-balled him with an opening offer of $40 Canadian. (You pay over $200 for knock offs here.) He extended his hand to shake on the deal, then walked around his shop, loading up a bag with accessories and tobacco. Clearly, I had overpaid, and to make the deal fair, he was throwing in everything that I had touched and smelled before finding the hookah. This included two kilograms of apple tobacco that he had mixed himself, and then two kilograms more. The transaction was done.
Somewhere between Louis C.K., the hookah man, the church collection plate and the $100 movie ticket lies a better scheme than the walls that almost every newspaper in Canada has built around its product in the last few months.
Take The Globe and Mail. The version of its product that rumbles through my Twitter feed is a very different experience than what ends up on my neighbour’s doorstep—or the no man’s land behind the paywall. On Twitter, the reporters are whip smart and unpredictable. Sometimes they’re weird, sometimes neurotic, sometimes conflicted, sometimes they’re deeply hurt, sometimes inspired. Collectively on Twitter, these reporters come to feel like an uneven symphony of a day in the life of Canada. A staff of editors is then paid to turn this frantic symphony into Muzak.
A career Globe reporter once described this editing system to me as “binary.” A story is either easily understood by a reader or it is not. A Globe editor’s opinion of the reader must be very low. Because the Muzak is steady and predictable. Concerned only with the fact that there is an obvious nut graf, which is repeated in the headline, dek, cutlines, quoted sources and pulls. The final product, in contrast to the one on Twitter, is incapable of real prescience or anything like a human voice. The Globe is selling consistency and certainty when those succeeding around them are selling intimacy and a sense that anything can happen if you just turn a page or click a link.
It’s a poor formula to make money in this economy – spend a ton on good, necessary reporting, which the Huffington Post and all the other cold blooded content hijackers plaster up on their website; Jeffrey Simpson’s steady wisdom is given a sassy voice, cut and pasted, framed and reframed, and pushed out through massive social networks to niche and partisan and regional audiences. (Ironically, distribution is what these “content generators” do best.) That a reader must now navigate a paywall to read a drabber version on the Globe only makes this e-leeching more lucrative.
While my internal payment mechanism is not so precious to mistake the fact that there can be no raw symphony if I don’t pay for the Muzak, I’m still too precious to specifically buy Muzak. And as someone who lives west of Kitchener, scrounging to get my money’s worth behind that paywall, only reminds me that I’m subsidizing reporting about central Canada. The Globe ought to try letting the tangential audience outside of its geographic and “edited” core pay what it’s worth to them.
Right now I choose to pay zero. I feel good about this transaction. Like I’m sticking it to the editors for ignoring my needs. How would you get me to pay more than zero?
Consider the comedian Mike Daisey, who once gave his entire performance fee to the audience in cash as they entered the theatre, asking them to pay it back to him afterwards – based on what they felt it was worth. He earned back the entire sum plus $1,169. The Globe could charge me five bucks a month for the content, immediately credit it back to my account, empowering me to give it back based on what I use. If the Globe really wanted to engage me, they’d credit a few cents back to my account if I wrote something worthwhile in the comment section or enthusiastically tweeted a link.
Alternatively, I’d spend two bucks a month for a bundle of the stuff I actually want to read. “Extended drafts” by Stephanie Nolen, Mark MacKinnon, Doug Saunders, Simon Houpt, Alexandra Gill, Gary Mason, Sunny Dhillon, David Ebner’s kooky sports writing – and a handful of other bylines I’d check off each month – throw in a weird and engaging piece of long form in the vein of Ian Brown.
I’ve got a couple hundred bucks set aside every month for content, which typically includes a dozen print magazine subscriptions from around the world, several songs a month, some films, a play, a book or two. What will you give me for it?
Chris Koentges is an award-winning journalist based in Vancouver with work in publications ranging from The Atlantic to The Walrus to Reader’s Digest. For annotations to this column, follow @endicity.
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