The big debate over pay walls is getting down to the fine points; as opposed to grand theological, existential questions, it’s really more of a sharper dispute over the method of getting users to pay. Do you dangle carrots and hope the support follows? Or brandish a stick — perhaps a variety of sticks of different lengths? The debate played along those lines at the Paley Center on Tuesday, with the make ’em pay side represented by Steve Brill, cofounder of startup Journalism Online, which promises to help news outlets charge for their content, and Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of non-profit NPR, arguing for making pay optional.
The most vocal panelists — the group included Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis and media consultant Shelly Palmer — backed up Schiller’s contention that having a formal pay wall will only drive consumers away. In defense of the pay model, Brill contended that businesses need to run on direct money, and advertising and promotions won’t keep the lights on. Plus, he and others dismissed softer measures of coaxing money through online tip jars as being hard to count on.
Developing the pay habit: People have been exchanging cash for newspapers and magazines for decades, they just need to get back into the habit of doing so online, Brill said. In a conversation after the panel, Brill told me that the pay wall isn’t the only way to achieve that: “We believe in giving publishers a variety of options, including donations and bundling online and print. But some have this religious idea that people will be offended if you try to get them to pay for the news product. I’m just asking, ‘Who really knows?'”
Brill also dismissed the notion expressed by pay-wall opponent Michael Wolfe that subscription and newsstand sales aren’t what supported the news historically — that it was advertising all along and social-media sites and Craigslist have demolished that model. “That is not across the board,” Brill said. “There has never been a news organization that’s been able to exist on ads alone. Many newspapers have relied heavily on circulation revenue. By putting it all online for free, they abandoned the core print product and the revenue that came with it.”
Audience participation: During the session, Schiller spoke about the experiment with pay walls when she was general manager of NYTimes.com. The short-lived TimesSelect, which put archives and columnists behind an online pay wall, “made $10 million, but I don’t think it was worth it.” Afterward, she stressed the need to get revenue directly from consumers, but said that at a time when there so many alternative news sources, companies had to tread very gingerly. “I think trying to force a change in audiences