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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