Paid content, pay walls and the link economy; topics receiving massive attention in the last week thanks to the document (via the Nieman Journalism Lab) distributed by the Associated Press which details their plans to reclaim their content and seek to make it work harder for them. It’s a troubling time for news companies as they struggle to find a way to make their websites profitable and look on in distrust as the aggregators increase their audience and in turn their ad dollars. Is locking up content behind subscriptions and selling online entities the rights to reuse it actually going to help them in the long run?

An interesting debate into this has been sparked by this article from Arnon Mishkin which elicited this response from Jeff Jarvis. They take opposing sides but at the same time both make valid points. Two posts worth reading!

In my opinion the answer isn’t charging for everything. Content creators have the right to charge for something if it’s valuable to someone else, the problem for news is that everyone writes slightly different opinions of the same thing (this post being one example of that). Newspapers and publishers need to have something unique to offer if they’re going to charge users to read it let alone charge others to reuse or further distribute. Some will be able to do this (the FT being a good example), others really don’t offer enough value to get away with it and I’m afraid I think their dreams of making the web their most profitable distribution channel are over.

One problem is that there’s only so many news stories out there and if everyone is covering the same thing then only the best coverage will survive (users will very quickly stop paying if the content isn’t good enough). The other problem I foresee for news is that if you lock your content away and prevent linking then you’ll kill the buzz that surrounds a good story you do publish (how many retweets will a pay walled article get?).

The web is built on links and content curation (not just creation); that’s how buzz explodes, memes spread and serendipity occurs. Cutting this off could just kill a lot of news sources as the more forward thinking (and innovative online) take advantage and continue to push the free and distributed model. Even newspapers get shared, picked up, discussed in the pub and curated. Will web pages behind pay walls have a lifespan or will they end up forgotten in some archive that Google can’t access?

I think linking’s vital to the webs survival and continued growth, it’s how it all started (my first job in web involved building link portals in 1995), and without it we’d be a much poorer community. Content creators need to find ways to monetize their assets while not hindering access or distribution, a new model is required.

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