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Fixing the Firewalled News Problem

newspaper-paywall-chains

Danny Sullivan wants Google to stop penalizing news content that’s behind firewalls in its search rankings.

Many news publications have “paywalls,” where people can’t read content unless they have a paid subscription. Some of these are very strict, such as with The Times of London. If you don’t pay, you don’t get to read. Some are “leaky,” such as with the New York Times. It allows people coming from Google or from social networks to read some or all content for free.

Strict paywalls pose a big problem for Google. The company has long said that searchers generally don’t like being sent to sites that have paywalls. Searchers are used to the idea that they can read anything they click on from a Google search for free. If they hit a paywall, they get annoyed. Some of that annoyance blows back on Google. “Why did you send me to this place!”

Sullivan argues that Google doesn’t do this with other forms of content:

If someone searches for Game Of Thrones, those episodes aren’t free anywhere (at least legitimately). Nevertheless, Google doesn’t hesitate to point searchers to a variety of places where Game Of Thrones is behind a paywall.

Want to download “Uptown Funk” for your music player? Search for “uptown funk download” or “uptown funk mp3,” and Google’s happy to send you to Amazon and iTunes, where the music is behind a paywall. Google will also send you to a lot of places where you can get pirated copies, but that’s a whole other issue.

In either of these examples, most searchers probably aren’t going to be upset with Google for sending them to where the content can be purchased because they expect to pay. Yes, some want it free. Yes, some of those will keep hunting. But many will actually be grateful if Google directs them to legitimate places where the content they expect to purchase can indeed be bought.

Why should news be different? As Google’s brought in more and more support for the paywalls of Hollywood, maybe its time to do the same for those of newspapers.

There’s an argument that Google’s helped train people to expect that news content should be free, even though it has a cost. If Google removes the discrimination it has in place against paid news content, over time, people might accept that clicking into it will require payment in the same way they accept that with entertainment content.

The problem is that, unlike some other forms of media, most news content is legitimately available for free. That is, while a particular Times of London or New York Times or Wall Street Journal story might be paywalled, some other outlet will have their own version of that story (often based on the work of the reporters at a paywalled site), especially if it’s of sufficient interest to garner significant searching. Most of us want the free story, not a story that’s grayed out or otherwise inaccessible.  (And, as Sullivan notes, many work around this by allowing people who come to a story directly from Google or a social media site to read that story for free.)

It’s not Google’s job to help train people to stop expecting their news for free. If they believe sending readers down frustrating rabbit holes will send them scurrying off to Bing or Yahoo, they’re well within the bounds of decency to instead give them what they want.

Sullivan then advances a brilliant idea:

Let’s call it Google News All Access. I’m taking that name from Google Play Music All Access. That’s Google’s program where it charges consumers $9.99 per month to listen to whatever songs they want. Behind the scenes, that revenue gets shared to rights holders according to some mystery formula but one that’s clearly good enough that many participate in.

I want Google to do the same for news. Maybe it launches Google News All Access that allows people for $10 per month to read any content in Google News they want. Maybe Google keeps a small amount of this to manage the program. The rest is divided up among the publishers.

There will need to be some hard thinking on the formula. Sites that don’t have paywalls already might not get any payout. Those that have expensive paywalls might get a bit more per click than those with less expensive ones. But it’s far from impossible to do. If it happens, then you get the best of both worlds for news publications with paid content. The content is made more visible and also converts into subscription fees.

Other things would have to be worked out. Some publications might value the idea that everyone can read some of their articles without a subscription. Perhaps First Click Free continues but it gets modified, so that people get only one free click to a publication per day, not up to five. Publications might also choose to keep some articles open to everyone while others are more fully locked down than First Click Free currently allows.

This strikes me as a perfectly sound solution, at least for avid news consumers. I get that it takes money to finance quality reporting and I’m perfectly willing to pay a reasonable amount to support that. I’m not, however, willing to spend $20 a month to read the New York Times, another $15 to read the Washington Post, and another $25 to read the Financial Times. The advent of the Internet, in addition to commodifying the news, has radically changed the way most of us consume it. Like most of you, I consume a lot of news stories most days—but from dozens of outlets. I’m not interested in paying each of them for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    To be honest, James, I’m not sure if enough people would sign up for $9.90 a month subscription plan for News. But it does represent the kind of bold thinking needed to find a financing plan for news in the Internet area.

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  2. Tony W says:

    The problem with news is that it’s not music or video – it’s easily duplicated in altered form.

    Sure, some outlets have unique content – Timothy Egan’s column is only available from the New York Times – but for the most part you can get the story, perhaps written slightly differently, from somebody willing to do it for free.

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  3. DrDaveT says:

    The problem is that, unlike some other forms of media, most news content is legitimately available for free.

    No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that the news providers want something for nothing.

    Google is (or is not) pointing potential customers at a for-profit business’s product. That’s called “advertising”. One generally pays for it. If the NYT wants Google to advertise for them, they should pay for it.

    Sullivan then advances a brilliant idea

    The idea that Google customers should pay Google to buy the NYT (and other pay channels) for them? That would put Google in the business of doing the NYT’s marketing and distribution work for them, and paying to do it. Google should do that if — and only if — Google thinks they will make more money that way. It seems unlikely, but there might be a price point where it makes sense from Google’s point of view. That might not be a price point where it makes sense from the NYT’s point of view.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that the news providers want something for nothing.

    I’m arguing that what follows is the problem with Sullivan’s suggestion, not for the industry or consumers.

    @DrDaveT:

    That would put Google in the business of doing the NYT’s marketing and distribution work for them, and paying to do it.

    Well, no. Google would be marketing a Google product that’s a natural fit for Google: serving as a virtual aggregator of valuable news content.

    The problem for news producers is that it’s very expensive to do what they do and very easy for others to redistribute their product cheaply once it’s produced. Aside from those who provide essential information to the well-heeled (the business model of the FT, WSJ, CQ, and others) news content becomes a commodity once it’s out there. Most consumers would be willing to pay a reasonable amount of money to access the content from the producers themselves—most of us did that routinely even 12 or 15 years ago–but there’s no viable way for the papers to market that content at a rate that makes sense to consumers given the realities of electronic redistribution. Sullivan’s solution–for Google to serve as a paid gatekeeper–solves that problem.

    Now, I have no idea of whether $9.99 a month is the right price. But it seems reasonable as a ballpark.

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  5. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Well, no. Google would be marketing a Google product that’s a natural fit for Google: serving as a virtual aggregator of valuable news content.

    Surely it is up to Google to decide whether they wish to be in that business or not.

    there’s no viable way for the papers to market that content at a rate that makes sense to consumers given the realities of electronic redistribution. Sullivan’s solution–for Google to serve as a paid gatekeeper–solves that problem.

    It solves that problem for the NYT and WaPo. What problem does it solve for Google? As best I can tell, Google doesn’t think they have a problem.

    I assume nobody is talking about forcing Google to offer this service, as a sort of public utility? At that point, it’s up to the producers of allegedly valuable news content to convince Google to enter into such an arrangement. Unless Google can dramatically overcharge for the service, I don’t see how it’s worth the effort (and obligations) on their part.

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  6. Deserttrek says:

    considering most news is not facts it is opinion , why would people want to pay for it?

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