Paywalls, vinyl, and other dead issues.

It’s been a longstanding bias of mine that the generation we call digital natives—the kids who’ve grown up practically hard-wired to the network—will steadily gravitate toward classic, analog, and tangible media and experiences, not merely as a fadish expression of hipsterism, but as a natural result of maturing tastes and dwindling leisure time.  One of the first posts I wrote for this blog, What I’d tell my own kids about piracy. Why scarcity is a good thing. made a case for the value of limiting one’s choices rather than indulging in a kind of media gluttony implicit in the presumed need to seek out illegal channels as though the legal ones had nothing to offer.  People shared that post a fair bit, homing in on the assertion that whatever is worth your time is also worth your money.

We are, of course, seeing some trends toward “old” experiences, like a renewed interest in vinyl records, which will not likely replace streaming and digital downloads but may indicate that fans are discovering (or rediscovering) that there can be more to enjoying recorded music than just hearing it.  Even the process of browsing in a store for LPs is one that I always considered a satisfying sensory experience prior to the invention of the CD. Like turning pages in a large picture book, with each album displaying about 160 square inches of cover art in contrast to the squinty 25 afforded by a CD jewel case.  I always liked that flipping through albums was a mostly silent activity other than faint woofs of air as one leaned each record forward. By contrast, the grating clack-clack of sorting through small plastic cases always sounded and felt to me more like work.

Once home with a new vinyl album one must perform a few steps in collaboration with a mechanical object, some motion which beg a gentle touch that imbues the preparation with an almost ritualistic quality, complimenting the sense of time set aside to listen actively to new music.  For all the convenience of digital access, it doesn’t always satisfy the human need to experience life beyond the perfunctory.  Fast food is convenient and cheap, too; but there’s a reason it doesn’t replace fine dining just as there is a reason a fine meal assumes a certain presentation and atmosphere to complement the meal.  And for experiences—yes, even content—that are truly desirable, people are willing to pay when that is the only way to have them.

Certainly, The New Yorker magazine is fine-dining as publications go, and it turns out that its readers are very much willing to pay for it—even online.  According to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at the Wall Street Journal, when The New Yorker began experimenting with a paywall that would go up once a visitor had accessed a limit of six free stories in a single month, readership increased rather than declined.  “Instead of deterring readers, the number of unique visitors rose to 9.7 million in October 2015 from 5.5 million a year earlier, the month before the paywall was implemented, …” reports Trachtenberg.

I can’t say I’m surprised that, despite the conventional free-culture “wisdom” that’s been shouted at the market for nearly two decades, we find evidence that consumers are not only capable of recognizing the qualities they want in “content” but are even willing to pay for it.  Granted, the readership of The New Yorker is a devout audience that has been cultivated for more than a century, and it is currently the only property in the Condé Nast portfolio to so far experiment with a paywall. But for the same reasons a new vinyl store opened in my local mall while other retail is shuttering, the market may yet prove that there is no one new, digital model that entirely disrupts and replaces all that has come before.  Just maybe the producers and consumers of high-value journalism, music, film, TV, etc. will be best served by various combinations of new and old that are a little more complex than just putting stuff out there, signing up for an digital ad service account, and selling merch on the side.

In contrast to The New Yorker, the equally venerable publication The Atlantic was the first to “go digital”, according to this 2011 article by Lauren Indvik for Mashable.  In January of  2008, The Atlantic dropped its paywall and developed a holistic, digital strategy for both publication and advertising.  As Indvik describes, the The Atlantic’s history as a platform for editorial made it a natural for the web, but the road to profitability involved a comprehensive and creative strategy to develop advertising “experiences” for premium brands across print, digital, events, and mobile.  “Digital has proved tough terrain for many traditional advertisers, who have been forced to compete against highly targeted search and display networks, such as Google’s,” writes Indvik.

Of course, the success of both The New Yorker and The Atlantic are entirely dependent upon the quality of the work on the page, even if the two entities commoditize distribution through different models.  And the only way to maintain that quality is either a sustainable high-value ad strategy or direct sales to consumers, or some combination of the two.  This was true before the free-culture rhetoric disrupted common sense, and it’s still true.

As New Yorker editor David Remnick says in the WSJ article, “Information doesn’t want to be free, it wants to get around freely.”  Or, as may be inferred from the renewed interest in the vinyl experience, maybe the creative and informative experiences consumers value cannot be described so homogeneously as “information” the way many tech-utopians chose to interpret part of Stewart Brand’s famous quote in order to justify devaluation of the work itself. Maybe consumers don’t demand that everything be free, just that it be good.

In a related story (as reported in The New Yorker of course), Kodak drew considerable crowds at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with the introduction of a contemporary version of the Super 8 camera.  Amid a bevy of entrepreneurs offering “smart” devices that consumers may prefer to leave “dumb”, Kodak’s debut of a new way to make old home movies on celluloid is an unexpected move that may actually work. Read the full story here.

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