Blogging and firewalls

By Felix Salmon
July 22, 2009
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File under “getting results”: after I kvetched (not for the first time) about how both The Audit and Dealscape served up truncated RSS feeds, both have now switched to full feeds. Dealscape has an interesting model, which I haven’t seen before: its free content gets served up in full, interspersed with truncated versions of its paid content. Essentially, the RSS feed is acting as an advertisement for the subscription service.

OK, scratch all that. I wrote the above, and then went out for a walk in the Chinese countryside, and when I came back, although The Audit still had its full RSS feed, Dealscape had re-truncated theirs. Why? It makes no sense: everybody I’ve talked to who’s switched from partial feeds to full feeds has seen their web traffic go up as a result. (Update: Now The Audit has re-truncated too! Aargh!)

But that’s not the only thing which doesn’t make sense about The Deal’s blogs. For instance, after I said that I tended not to blog stuff behind subscription firewalls — “controlled-circulation magazines, research reports, paysite passwords, that sort of thing”, Yvette Kantrow responded by saying that “Salmon’s readers could, in fact, read virtually anything they choose to read, even if it is behind a firewall, if they are willing to pay for it”.

No, actually, they couldn’t. Of the three examples I gave, two are specifically not available to anybody willing to pay for them. Yvette Kantrow might live in a world where “reader” is synonymous with “well-connected and important US-based financial-market professional”, but I don’t, and I don’t want to, either. I’m glad I have such readers, but I’m also glad I have lots of other readers, too, who can’t pick up the phone and ask a bank for a copy of a research report, and who don’t have the kind of cachet which lands them on the distribution list of controlled-circulation magazines.

A lot of them don’t even live in the US, which means that even if they wanted to go down to their local newsstand to buy a copy of Rolling Stone, they couldn’t. International payment systems are still a bit rickety, and in many countries it’s still pretty much unthinkable for people to give out their credit-card details over the internet. In any case, the fact is that if I link to something behind a subscription firewall, the chances are that only a small proportion of my readers will be able to read it.

Kantrow continues:

Call me hopelessly old-fashioned, but why not ask readers to foot some of the bill for content journalists create — especially now, when online ad sales are severely depressed? Do bloggers value journalism so cheaply? In Salmon’s blog-infused world, any content that isn’t available for free, online, simply doesn’t exist. As he puts it, “you can’t link from your blog to a magazine sitting on your bedside table.” True enough, but by the same token, you can’t link to a phone call or a human conversation, either. Would Salmon “feel like an idiot” blogging about one of those if its content were compelling?

Firstly, there’s nothing old-fashioned about readers paying for journalism: the historical business model behind journalism was to give the content away in an attempt to maximize circulation, and then charge advertisers for access to those readers. If readers did pay a subscription fee, it was always less than the printing and distribution costs of the physical object — they’d partially pay for the paper, and the news came free.

As for content which isn’t available for free online, I don’t think it doesn’t exist. But the bar is raised a lot before I’ll write about such material on my blog, and indeed I’ve been known to spend some time going back and forth with editors and publishers asking them to make a certain article free so that I have something to link to.

There’s also something a bit broken about the idea that I should ask my readers to foot the bill for someone else’s journalism — especially when a very high proportion of the stuff I link to I think is fundamentally wrong or misguided. If Ben Stein were behind a subscription firewall, for instance, I would never want to be considered to be encouraging my readers to pay for his execrable columns. The ecology of hyperlinks breaks down immediately when money gets introduced: you get a sharp uptick in bloggers writing extremely annoying things like “a certain publication, which I shan’t link to here, has accused me of” etc etc. Blog readers, who used to be part of the conversation, at that point find themselves essentially just overhearing one side of it. And that serves no one.

What about those phone calls and human conversations? I blog those very rarely, for precisely that reason. Reporters make phone calls and write them up; bloggers can and do report occasionally, but it’s by no means a necessary part of their job.

There are no hard and fast rules in blogging; that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. But in general blogging is all about the free exchange of information. And yes, Yvette, that means that bloggers tend to “basically ignore anything that’s not available for free, online”. There are always exceptions to that rule. But it’s important to understand that it’s not a function of some kind of doctrinaire position in the free vs paid debate. It’s just a function of what bloggers do — which is to enjoin the public debate, rather than private debates accessible only to people paying an entry fee.


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Shut up!

Posted by Joe P | Report as abusive


Posted by otto | Report as abusive

I heard HBS is offering a new course on the dynamics of the blogosphere… Do I hear professor Salmon>??

Felix you rock

Posted by dvictr | Report as abusive

Dear Blogger,

My name is Miguel Barbosa, I’m a fan of your blog and follow it closely.

A year ago I started a blog dedicated to making financial and business people well rounded. My blog is called SimoleonSense and it draws ideas from psychology, behavioral finance, philosophy, & science- the blog then these ideas with economics, finance, and investing. I have approximately 1,400 posts several of which are dedicated to you.
I would like to get your opinion my blog. Thank you for your time.

Miguel Barbosa
Founder Of
“Enriching Ideas For Intelligent Investors”

I have to agree with you here, Felix. It\’s not journalists\’ fault that publishing companies have not found a viable business model online. I see a great deal of inflexibility (and a legacy business model not conducive to online media) among old media companies that is not yet anywhere near playing out.

But if I am clicking on links in yours or anyone else\’s blog, and randomly encounter a for-pay firewall, I am likely to stop and not return. I might be willing to pay for an overall subscription to anything I may encounter, but that monthly bill has been pre-empted by my ISP(s) (yes, in my case multiple ISPs).

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix, Just curious, because you blog on this topic a lot. What if the paywall were cheap (say 25 cents), and temporary (say 24 hours)? What if that was how the NY Times instituted a pay wall, and you knew your readers could get to the content with nothing more than a click or two of Paypal, and a quarter? And by tomorrow, they wouldn’t even have to pay the quarter? My thought right now is that paywalls have it backwards in that they are not mimicking the formerly very successful act of buying a newspaper on the street. So papers online should make readers pay for today, but set the archives free. Click on my name for the link to my longer essay about this. And enjoy the rest of your trip. Hope you’re eating very well.

I imagine some guy with a poster stuck to his chest wandering up & down Oxford Street in the rain .
His poster says ” I will give you my opinion on global warming for the paltry sum of £1 “.

Meanwhile, some other, more realistic, guy is walking up & down with a poster that says “Global warming caused by too much sex among the lower orders !” or whatever.

See, the first guy just isn’t going to get his message across.

People with strong opinions don’t usually expect to be PAID to pontificate about them. Lord, they are usually grateful for an audience patient enough to spare them 5 minutes.

Whenever I have REALLY had some VITAL point to put across, I feel that I would almost pay people to listen to me, it’s that important. ;-) If someone asks for cash up front, well, I guess he’s more interested in the money than getting his POV over. In which case, his POV is probably not earth shattering enough for me to want to pay him to hear about it.

And I say all this FOR FREE !! Wow !!

God bless the internet.

Posted by chaingangcharlie | Report as abusive

…..”I will give you my opinion on global warming for the paltry sum of £1″…..

Damn, that might just work. Tell Murdoch.

Posted by otto | Report as abusive

Felix, hope China’s treating you well. My turn to kvetch about your blog system, as my earlier comment appears to have been lost so my earlier little eloquent argument has to be summarized like this: What if a system were devised by newspapers that let you discuss and link to paid content, because after 24 hours of publication, that content would be made free? I think newspapers have the model backwards, in fact breaking their own formerly successful model of paying for the day’s paper on the street: pay for today, set the archives free:  /21/david-simon-and-newspapers-have-pay -walls-backwards-pay-for-today-set-archi ves-free/

Poor Felix. Apparently all it takes to be a Blogger is an opinion. No real world experience in financial markets necessary. Shame on the rest of us for accessing proprietary research because, apparently, we are in a position to trade-off – or on – it. He wants to be taken seriously, while meanwhile the rest of us are cross referencing what he says against everything else that we read.

Posted by MrBill, Eurasia | Report as abusive

Willingly I accept. The theme is interesting, I will take part in discussion. I know, that together we can come to a right answer.