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.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • “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.”

    None of this is all that complicated David. In previous discussions it has been made clear that the ONLY way to control content revenue is through limited access(which is what both of these providers does) and via the quality of the content, which is completely subjective and dependent on the consumer.

    Successful is one thing. The more interesting question is HOW successful are they? In comparison to similar media sources that are free and unrestricted.

    A bunch of hipsters clamoring for vinyl and super 8 or whatever is fine and yes, absolutely there is a certain charm to these things. Nostalgia, slightly more visceral experience. Bot fine, and also fleeting. Anyone who is seriously interested in music will listen to it in all formats in whatever capacity they can.

    But the average consumer? The person who likes music in the car, on a run, while they work? They have never, and will never care about such eccentricities. And while there may be only a few quality sources of true editorial/journalism available, there is an endless supply of competing media. And the value/overall quality of a medium is determined more and more by who is willing to pay for what. Things that are “popular” are not necessarily “good”.

    I enjoy The Walking Dead. Grew up on stuff like that, making super 8 horror films with my buddies. Do I like it enough to have cable, pay for a package with AMC and watch every week commercials and all? Nope.

    I use Netflix, seasons for me come out a year or so after they have aired. I watch them at my leisure and there are no ads involved. The deals for money are so far removed from the creator it is unlikely that my viewing makes any difference at all. Yet somehow the show survives. Good, bad, mediocre. It exists not due to everyone who “likes” it, pays for it. It exists because ENOUGH people who like it pay for it.

    Often when you talk about piracy and the lessening of our culture in the digital age, it seems as if you are holding a screen door closed to keep out the rain and wind. Sure you are addressing some of it, but mostly you are indulging your own idea of security, when ultimately the ONLY real way to stop your floor and your clothes from getting wet is to close the actual door, sit down and enjoy some silent super 8 movies on your couch while playing your favorite song on the phonograph. Let the rest of the world be as it will be, the storm will pass, it always does.

    • The problem here is that mostly the appeal of both The New Yorker and The Atlantic is emphemeral. It is unlikely that you’ll return to one issue again, and again, and again. This is not quite the same with books, films, music, or images. These are items that one does returns to. Now when I was very much younger I used to have a number of of periodicals some weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, and quarterly. I have about 20 years worth of Private Eye magazines in bindings on a bookshelf. 15 years worth of Byte magazines piled on top of a bookcase. 10 years of the London Review of books stored in the attic. 10 years worth of Zoom magazine. Perhaps I should of kept all those early issues of Omni but the neighbour kid was so pleased to get them. There are assort piles of other stuff too.

      Truth is that I don’t think I’ve spent maybe an hour flipping through those PEs in the last several years. The LRBs have bee in the attic since 1997.I’ve not done anything with those Byte magazines. The Zooms were perused about 8 years ago.

      The books … well you never know when you might want to dip into some academic book to remind one self about somethiong or other. But those SciFi and fantasy novels I’m probably never going to read again. Their presence is somewhat comforting though.

      OTOH each of the 1000+ music albums gets played at least twice a year.

      • I agree that the relationship to any given article will be ephemeral, but I think both The New Yorker and The Atlantic have earned relationships overall that are not ephemeral. As the WSJ article mentions, there are New Yorker readers who cannot imagine being without it; and that is a relationship earned over many decades of publishing some of the best writers in the world. We form relationships with those writers and the ones who follow in their footsteps, and The Atlantic is similar in this regard.

    • And when I said mostly ephemeral I am aware that some articles do stand over decades:

    • While I agree with much of what you say, AV, my assumption is that the “average consumer” is one who wants a variety of experiences–fast food and fine dining, music on the run, and music appreciated more actively. I don’t think these experiences are mutually exclusive at all, and I don’t think a consumer has to be some elitist to enjoy music or a film or a fine meal. Ultimately, I think you and I are saying very similar things. If I’m criticizing anyone in this post, it’s the business gurus who have preached the new wisdom of free culture, as though the idea that consumers will ever pay again is outdated and, therefore, stupid. There’s nothing new about “thought leaders” promoting a dumb idea. It happens all the time. The Web 1.0 1900s was full of enthusiastic lingo masking the millions of investments in Potemkin businesses.

      • I actually think the diversity of choice in regards to how media is consumed is a good thing. That said, it is not without it’s down sides.

        Strict control over content distribution is both an opportunity and a challenge. Maybe the question is not a matter of “free” versus not free, but rather a question of HOW freely to release works into the wild.

        There will always be marketing/business people with no other goal beyond maximizing profits. This, I think hurts independent creators the most as it sets an arbitrary value on various types of media.

        In looking at alternative ways in which content is presented, adding a bit more “bang” for a buck, perhaps it is possible to break the chains of big business and allow a more diverse group to thrive and be profitable.

        Small runs of vinyl, or reprint of images at a high quality, etc. Things that make created works stand out among the sea of choices as art and not simply fuel for consumption.

        People have become too accustomed to instant gratification and as such, getting anyone to pay attention to anything substantial becomes a herculean task for any creator.

        As a musician, it is no longer enough to make “good” music. We are complimented on our material and have had several opportunities to play interesting and fulfilling events. But what happens after? After the last chord has rung, and the lights go down. How do we stand out and remain relevant in the minds of the audience?

        How does anyone compete with that? Even a huge multi billion dollar blockbuster will be forgotten when the next big thing is released.

        I think you touched on the answer a bit in your article. Focus on your core audience(or create one) and they will follow your content(as in the case of the New Yorker and The Atlantic). Instead of fighting against a wave of imitators, prates, or actual competitors, build a rapport with those who are willing to support you, both with eyes on, and with dollars spent. Let them treat your works as an investment so that they have something tangible that lingers after the lights go down.

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