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In which Adam Lashinsky of Fortune misunderstands both paywalls and social media

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In the grand scheme of things, one short blog post on LinkedIn (s lnkd) doesn’t seem like it’s worth getting upset about, but there was something about a recent submission by Adam Lashinsky — and particularly a followup post in response to reader criticism — that really got under my skin. At the risk of turning a molehill into a mountain, I think the Fortune senior editor’s attitude in his posts says a lot about mainstream or traditional media’s lack of understanding about online media, and particularly social media.

In his original post, Lashinsky wrote a few short paragraphs about a piece the magazine did on a Brazilian hedge fund taking control of Burger King and Heinz, a piece he said every business-school student should read. Then he linked to an online preview — although he said he didn’t understand why Fortune had decided to put a free preview online, and added: “The kids say they can get everything they need to read for free on the Internet. Sorry. It’s not true.”

What happened then is instructive for a number of reasons: in a nutshell, all hell broke loose. As Lashinsky noted in his follow-up post, his short piece on LinkedIn got more than 200 comments:

“The overwhelming majority of which criticized me in some fashion for linking to a behind-the-paywall article in the first place, having the nerve to suggest journalism is worth paying for, ‘spamming’ LinkedIn users — including those who follow me — and writing poorly.”

It’s not just about whether it’s free

I looked at all of the comments on Lashinsky’s piece, and he is both right and wrong in how he characterizes them. It’s also worth noting that — as far as I could tell — the Fortune writer didn’t respond to a single comment, positive or negative, which might say something about the overall tone of the responses.


It’s true that many of the commenters seemed irritated by the fact that Lashinsky’s entire LinkedIn post was basically a sales pitch for a Fortune magazine article that was behind a paywall. As one reader put it, in a comment that was up-voted by over 125 people: “If I can’t read it without being a subscriber, don’t post it on LinkedIn. I’m less likely to subscribe after this type of empty tease.” Others referred to Lashinsky’s post as “spam,” and said they would not seek out either his posts or Fortune articles in the future.

In his subsequent post at Fortune, entitled “Why I am unapologetic about paywalls or promotion,” Lashinsky defended his original piece and seemed offended by those who complained about his behavior. And he trotted out some of the usual defences for paywalls and the attitude that surrounds them:

“I get that web readers who expect everything to be free think it’s bad etiquette to link to paywall-protected content… but what’s particularly irksome is the inability of many to recognize the value of online content.”

Entitlement is not a viable business model


Lashinsky’s comment immediately reminded me of a great Jeff Jarvis post from 2011, in which he described what he called “hard economic lessons” for news outlets — including the need to dispense with the sense of entitlement that many traditional publishers have about their content. As Jarvis put it: “Should is not a business model. You can say that people should pay for your product, but they will only pay if they find value in it.” Also:

“No one cares what you spent. Arguing that news costs a lot is irrelevant to the market. The only thing that matters to the market is value. What is your service worth to the public?”

Lashinsky is upset that readers don’t want to pay for a Fortune piece that he sees as magnificent, and he adds that he doesn’t understand why his magazine even put a free preview online. In other words, readers should pay for Fortune because, well… because it is Fortune, and because Lashinsky says so. That’s not exactly a great sales pitch, and I think readers were right to point it out. And I think the Fortune editor got mad because he doesn’t really have a response to that accusation except: “Pay us because we deserve it.”

On top of that, posting a short promotional pitch to LinkedIn for a piece you give very few details about is a poor use of the platform. And not even responding to commenters — apart from a passive-aggressive piece chewing them out for not paying for your content — shows a lack of understanding about how social media can help your publication reach new readers, and yes, maybe even get paid.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stephen Brace and Arnold Gatilao and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq

20 Responses to “In which Adam Lashinsky of Fortune misunderstands both paywalls and social media”

  1. filmprofit

    There have been a few good comments here, but John James is the most cogent of them, and the most thoughtful. In LinkedIn, one is expanding their network through decent things, sharing expertise, and supporting others. It is a very soft (and maybe not effective) approach, but that is the way the community grew around what they were offered in the service. This is a thoughtful idea, and in keeping with the nature of the forum…

  2. John S. James

    What’s being lost is that the current paywall model just doesn’t work well, even aside from the money.

    I publish links to AIDS-related medical articles @cure4. If I chose articles regardless of paywalls, then each of my readers would have to pay thousands of dollars a year to use my free service fully — for vastly overpriced journal subscription access, and/or individual articles often priced around $30 online for one article. So almost always I find and select a free article about the expensive one and refer people there. Once or twice a year I may link to a paywalled article (and tell people that it costs), when there is no other way to inform my readers about something important.

    The problem isn’t the payment, but the prohibitive price. And the prices stay high because of the hassle of the payment transaction — even if you charged a penny or less and all readers could easily afford it, you would lose probably 90% to 99% of your audience to this trivial paywall. So publishers overcharge to try to make up for this loss. But usually that doesn’t work.

    Here is an alternative business model, so far untried. Important articles (and songs and other online art as well) usually have enthusiasts and other friends who want to and could help spread them. Have a paywall but sell “keys” to it at bulk prices to these potential sponsors — say 100 free accesses for $25, 1,000 accesses for $150, vs. $.50 for a single copy — with no limit to the size of any sponsorship. Sponsors can distribute this access through social networks or otherwise — and also can send their own short message to users of each copy of the article or art they paid for. End users just click for access, no hassle. The keys stop working when all sponsorship runs out — but if end users wish, they can purchase a new sponsorship and add it to the same key and/or new keys — making the keys effectively immortal, supporting the writer or artist as long as the key reaches an interested public. I have designed the software to do this, and will write more about it.

  3. Vladimir

    Mathew, it seems like you’re implying that Lashinsky is entitled. If you are, you misunderstood his point. His point was that content (an asset) in any other industry is something for which an asset acquirer (in this case the content reader) has to pay something in order to acquire it. You want to watch a movie, you buy a ticket or rent it. You want to have real-time information about the stock market, you buy a service that provides that to you. You want to buy a commercial building where the tenants pay you rent each month, you buy based on the value of that rent. This is not about entitlements, it’s about economics. His point is clear – content (or assets) require resources to develop and create. If you want to acquire it, you need to compensate the person who created that asset for his time and energy.

    You’re right that if the reader does not value the asset, he will not pay anything for it. I get that. But that does not mean that assets should be free. In actuality, the person complaining to Lashinsky is the entitled party here. He or she is the one who has an irrational expectation that content (or assets) need to be free.

  4. filmprofit

    Hi, Matthew, the LinkedIn folks are accurate in calling is spam. Which is why we have a “Promotion” button on LinkedIn, for those of us who manage forums there, it is a useful tool. Using LinkedIn just as a cheap advertising platform for your stuff is bad form. Use the advertising there, then. Being a social platform, it works best to give people something they can learn from, and then they feel good about you, and if they are viable consumers for your product or service, they can move forward from there.

    Jeffrey Hardy

    • Jeffrey,

      Everyone is promoting something. You are currently promoting your view of how linked in should be used. But surely no one has the right to impose their view on how social media should or should not be used, particularly not a self-righteous minority egged on by the profit hungry owners who of course want to stop people promoting anything commercial unless they get their cut.

  5. Fascinated by the entitlement culture that believes anything anyone digs up, shapes up and publishes, naturally, should be free. Apparently, if one has the technology to access information, it should be free to the seeker. Ye gads. To those who think I’m an old timer, I’d have to agree; I truly don’t get it; save your ageist retorts. I can’t figure how several generations of narcissistic “multi-taskers” seem to have come to the conclusion that any information someone else has organized should be free, a quick read and if asked, one should refuse to pay for it. Reported and edited information seems to many of my younger friends the equal of opinions; everything printed or read is of equal value, fair and balanced, talkers/writers representing “both” sides, issues, challenges, complexity rendered simple and digestible, available freely to save time and money. If that is the way the news world should work, my advice is run for office. That way no one will notice who’s on the take.

  6. Valentine North

    Great article. Especially the last few paragraphs.

    I think most still don’t understand just how big the internet really is. A lot of people, make that almost everyone in my country never even heard of “Fortune”, other than being referenced in a movie somewhere. I’m sure that’s pretty much the case for a lot of countries, with USA and a few others as exceptions where they carried their brand.

    Newspapers and magazines don’t have the same success on the internet as they do in the “Real World”, mainly because until a few years ago, the internet side of the business was mostly ignored. Because of that, people see them as two separate entities, two distinct brands with the same name.

    They also lose because of the size of everything. In the “Real world”, a news stand has only so much space and you can fit in only a fixed number of items. Giving the Big Names the edge in everything, from sales to coverage to brand recognition.
    On the Internet … Fortune has to compete with EVERYONE, not just other news outlets, but blogs as well, millions of them, on almost equal footing, because in the virtual world, their news stand is the size of a word you can type in the address bar.

    They snoozed and they lost almost everything in favor of LinkedIn and others.

    Right now, it’s not even a matter of making money or not. They simply can’t sell their content, even for free! What they really need, is to look at the online gaming industry, which goes through the exact same pains.
    Oh, and since I played a lot of online games, but not a lot of time, I can tell you this. You need a user base first, before you implement a payment system. No matter how brilliant the game is, if you don’t have users, you don’t have anything.

    • Valentine,

      I think everyone who’s seriously engaged in the media industry understands how big the internet is. What you need to understand is that exactly because of that brand becomes crucial. Fortune have a brand which they can and should exploit in exactly the way they are doing. The analogy with online games is ridiculous (presumably I don’t have to explain why).

  7. ranjanxroy

    Great post and gets at the heart of the issue. I think the point to stress though is your last para..whether in the pro or anti-paywall camp, there’s something a bit disingenuous about trying to convert subscriptions via the LinkedIn Influencers program. It’s built for the sharing of knowledge via its selected thought leaders, not a lead generation tool.

    If Adam has something valuable to tell the world via the LinkedIn platform that most of us would kill to take advantage of, he’s more than welcome. However, it’s going to hurt when it’s used as a cheap ploy to feed the subscription funnel. The worst part is I’m sure that’s not what he specifically intended.

    The fact that his response was explicitly free reminds me of the utter absurdity of when even the NY Times “drops the paywall” during major breaking events. Either make everything paid-for like a premium research service, or find a new business model. It’s that inconsistency that not only communicates they’re completely lost on what they’re doing, but just further confuses readers who potentially may have paid for content.

  8. Dan Mitchell

    Jesus Christ. Why does anyone continue to take this kind of witless drivel seriously?

    I’m as annoyed as anyone when people link to paywalled stuff on social media *without noting that it’s behind a paywall.* But Lashinsky *did* note it. What the hell do you want?

    Would it also run afoul of fundamentalist Free Content religious doctrine to note that there’s a book out that you like, or even that you wrote, and link to the Amazon page? I mean, you people need an actual bible so the rest of us can refer to the Commandments before saying anything that might get us labeled as infidels.

    Which Commandment is being broken here? Is there one that specifically forbids mention of anything that costs money? Can I tweet about the great coffeemaker I just bought, and link to Target’s product page, or is Content the only thing that gets this special church protection? All I can make out of this is that apparently it’s OK to flog something to death on social media as long as that something is ad-supported, but as soon as it involves actual money changing hands without involving a third party (advertisers), it somehow becomes “spam.”

    Where did Lashinsky say that all journalism should be behind a paywall? The whole purpose of his post, in fact, was to note the “value” of the particular thing he was talking about. Nowhere did he say that everybody needs to pay for it — only those interested in reading it are required to pay. If you’re not interested, move along, just as you would if it were ad-supported. That’s how markets work. Maybe there’s a BuzzFeed listicle that’s just as informative on this subject as the Fortune story is.

    Maybe it will turn out that not enough people will find such journalism worth paying for to make it worthwhile to produce it, and we’ll be left with the listicles and dumb commentary. So, why don’t we let the market make that determination rather than starting from the presumption (based on essentially nothing in the way of evidence) that our only possible course is to make everything free? So far, it doesn’t seem that 4-cent CPM ads for conspiracy-theory web sites and herbal boner pills are cutting it. If somehow they end up doing so, then great. Until then, serious adults are trying to come up with other means that might actually work. If you have any actual, specific evidence that Fortune’s paywall won’t work, please present it. It would be a first for you. In the meantime, your weird pseudo-moral arguments don’t stand up to the test of simple business logic.

    For people who like to talk about “hard economic lessons” you folks sure seem loath to learn the actual economics behind the subjects you pretend to be expert in.

    What’s ironic about this seemingly endless string of nonsense is that now, in 2013, it seems way more anachronistic than any clueless “old media” people who “don’t get the Internet” ever were. You and Jarvis are both throwbacks to the mid 90s. Get with it, old man, this is real “get off my lawn” stuff.

    • randybennett

      Exactly! It’s not about paying because it costs us to produce, it’s about paying because it presumably has value to you (a basic economic principle for any goods or service). And, as Dan points out, isn’t ridiculous to think you shouldn’t promote anything that you have to pay for or that social media should not be used as a promotional medium (tell Twitter and Facebook that).

      Perhaps Lashinsky didn’t promote his piece effectively and maybe he can be criticized for not responding directly to commenters. But, Mathew, is that your entire argument about why he has a “lack of understanding” of paywalls and social media.

      I must be dense because I still don’t understand the argument about why publishers should not charge for digital content. Can someone please explain that to me, again….

  9. Mathew,

    Is Adam saying “Pay us because we deserve it” or “pay us because you clicked on this and, therefore, you are signaling that you want it” ? I ask not to be provocative but because I genuinely want to know what you think the answer is.

    Your points about spam and paywalls are well-taken but, at the risk of attracting the same kind of ire that Adam brought down upon himself, I have to wonder if your arguments amounts to me saying to, say, Apple Computer (which Adam covers): “Hey, you advertised your iPhone to me and I really like it and I want to have one … and now I’m mad because you won’t give it to me for free.”

    Or perhaps I still have some “hard economic lessons” to learn.


    Ann Dwyer
    Crain’s Chicago Business

    • Don Jones

      Reading Lashinsky’s post, what comes through loud and clear is his strangely condescending attitude towards potential readers of the content he was promoting.

      The first person who commented got things off on a negative foot by picking up on that and faulting Lashinsky’s lack of providing any other value in return for the readers time and attention (other than the Fortune intro)…on top of the condescension.

      My own approach to walking the fine line of free versus paid on social media is to post only information that I think is (a) worth that reader’s time while (b) gently publicizing the value of our subscription database business.

  10. Perhaps next time something like this comes up the writer could simply say: “Heh, there’s a great story about ____ in Fortune right now. You can pick up the latest copy on the newsstand or read it online.” Yes, good journalism does cost money to produce and those who think they are “entitled” to it should also be willing to pay for it.

  11. I agree with your comments Mathew. While content creators know exactly the costs that go into great articles and videos, they don’t do themselves any favors by bludgeoning their audience with a paywall and expecting a sympathetic response.

    Perhaps a best practice on the use of LinkedIn to promote walled-off content is to always direct people to some part-way iteration of the content that is both ungated and of value – a set of bullet points, a graphic, a clip, that hopefully leaves people with a hunger to further engage with the full content and sign up for a sub.

    Reminds me of something I read from an NYT reporter, who said something to the effect of “I spend more time promoting what I do than doing what I do.”