Financial Times chief sees paywalls as 'morally' necessary to protect journalism


In making "the commercial and moral case for newspaper paywalls," the Financial Times' John Ridding points out that people do pay for access to high quality journalism such as his organization produces. Interviewer Roy Greenslade of The Guardian concludes with this:

But he clearly backs all such moves and concludes our conversation with a sharp observation about the digital revolutionaries who have argued that "information wants to be free." It is, he says, "an absurd notion."

A "sharp observation?"

It isn't. Few ever cite this ancient, shopworn slogan except entertainment executives and fellow travelers in need of an easy zinger. Ridding has no-one to attribute it to, so his usage of it gives the impression that he's not arguing entirely in good faith.

Taken in the economic context of the rest of the interview, it makes him appear ignorant of the fact market forces, not the opinions of free culture advocates, are what's hurting his traditional industry. Not a smart impression to give, even if you are turning a profit.

Perhaps the 'case' here, however, is actually intended to service similar prejudices in his audience about how the internet works. I.W.T.B.F. is so inherently empty of meaning when context-shifted that defensive critics can't resist wheeling it out: If the audience believes that newspapers are really under threat from inane news-pirating bloggers, it's easier to conceptually link paywalls to quality as well as revenue.

An interesting part of this is that it makes typical objections to paywalls — how will people link in? how will people share it? — read like appeals to vulgar popularity. Wouldn't you rather be in on the exclusive? But there are practical consequences for the silo: sealed-off from the internet and social networks, it can make money, but it's no longer part of the web. It loses influence and public accountability in proportion to its inaccessibility. It trades established guidelines for avoiding advertiser influence in favor of being directly financially tied to readers' own expectations and prejudices. That may certainly be preferable to readers, but it shouldn't be hard to figure out how superficial a 'moral' improvement it could end up in practice.

The really ingenious part, however, is that if you take Ridding's use of the term 'information' literally rather than as a proxy for journalism, it hints at a competitive advantage the FT has already established. A successful paywall reinforces the notion that information monopolies and the quality journalism that result are more valuable as private services for professional and cultural elites than as something you might read for free on a train.

There's nothing wrong with that — think LexisNexis. But this isn't a case for paywall journalism: it's a clever escape hatch for a screwed business model.

Take, for example, what happens when the product is of little interest to niche customers and commands no premium over competitors. Ridding finds himself unable to be "drawn into talking on other publishers' initiatives" when asked to comment on the 90% traffic drop suffered at the now-paywalled Times.

A moral case for paywall is also presented: subscriptions make newspapers less reliant on advertising for revenue, and therefore more independent from them. But just as many won't see through the "Information wants to be free" hogwash, they won't know that even with paywalls, the FT will still depend on advertisers for money: "Reach 12 million executives!".

Print was always overwhelmingly reliant on ad revenue. To newspapers, cover price and subscriptions exist not to generate a bulwark against advertiser influence but to increase the value of advertising space. Paid circulation is more valuable to advertisers because it means someone paid to look at their ads.

"If you have an audience that is paying for your journalism they are engaged and that is an important message for advertisers," Ridding said in an earlier interview. So much for the "morally abhorrent" formula of advertiser dependence that paywalls will free his paper from.

Paid circulation might not command ten times the ad rate (bad luck, Rupert!) but if the FT can make a go of it, good for the FT. But let's not pretend that this is about whether information wants to be free: it's about how effectively the Financial Times can control the information it sells to readers.