The New York Times made waves in the media world recently by dismantling its subscription paywall. As a result, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now read the entire paper online for free.
The failed paywall experiment of the New York Times is emblematic of the newspaper industry's two-decade-old struggle to survive online. So long as the Internet is perceived as nothing more than a new tool for distributing the news to a passive audience -- readers, citizen and the community more generally, will continue to tune out. For newspapers to survive, a more nuanced understanding of the online world is needed.
The key is grasping that the relationship between communities and their news has fundamentally changed.
You and I are in charge now
Prior to the Internet, people determined what was important by reading what newspaper editors thought was important. Today, people have a host of ways to determine what is important and to connect quickly with stories on those issues. Newspapers can shift their content, and advertising, online, but as long as they believe they are the arbiters of a community's agenda, they will continue to struggle.
Online, people engage with news in two new ways, both of which deviate significantly from the traditional newspaper model.
First, algorithm-based aggregators, such as Google News and Del.icio.us, and human-run websites, such as National Newswatch and the Huffington Post, provide powerful alternatives to the traditional newspaper editor.
Aggregators, both human and algorithm-based, don't care about content's origins, only its relevance to readers. They ferret out the best content from across the web and deposit it on your computer screen. This begs the question: if you could read the best articles drawn from a pool of 100 authors (the approximate number of journalists at a daily newspaper) vs. a pool of 1.5 million posts (the amount of new content created online each day), which would you choose?
But it is the second reason that should most concern newspapers. Younger readers don't just use aggregators. They increasingly read articles found through links from blogs. Rather than roaming within a newspaper's walled gardens, younger readers build their own media communities where a trusted network of bloggers guide them to interesting content. Online, bloggers are the new editors.
Take, for example, the relationship many Canadians have with the prominent blogger Andrew Potter. While most people have never met him in person, his readers know his perspectives and biases, and this personal connection creates a loyal following.
Antithetically, people are also drawn back because they are interested in the places Potter links to, virtually all of which direct readers away from the site he blogs for, Macleans.ca.
Share the good stuff
To most newspapers, the idea of directing traffic away from their news site remains an anathema. Newspaper websites contain virtually no external links. Ironically, this follows the design parameters of a Las Vegas casino -- the goal is to get you in, and not let you leave. Does anyone really believe that all the news and perspectives relevant and important to a community can reside on a single website?
In this manner, newspapers are fighting the very thing that makes the Internet community compelling: its interconnectedness. Like Potter's blog, the Internet's best sites are attractive, not simply because their content is good, but rather because they link to content around the web. And if that content is compelling, readers keep coming back for more guidance.
People enjoy a sense of community, and democracy is strengthened when citizens are informed. The problem is, the New York Times, and virtually every traditional newspaper, fails to understand that a model has emerged that is far better at both delivering information and fostering community than the traditional news industries.
Traditional media supporters will assert that these online communities are fragmented, in disagreement, full of scallywags, immature ranters, educated snobs and partisan hacks. And they'd be right. It's messy and it's imperfect. But then, so is the democratic community in which we live. The difference is, in an online community, everyone is telling us and directing us to issues and news items they believe are important.
The New York Times learned this lesson the hard way. After spending two years trying to wall its exclusive content off from the web, it discovered that rather than becoming more exclusive, it was becoming less relevant. Unable to link to its content, aggregators, bloggers and the online community more generally, simply stopped talking about them. Newspapers should heed this lesson. If newspapers want to transition into the online age -- they'll have to join this community, rather than seek to control it.