Frank Rich vs the NYT paywall

March 4, 2011
Megan Garber has a great column at Nieman Lab on the effect of paywalls on journalists:

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Megan Garber has a great column at Nieman Lab on the effect of paywalls on journalists:

For writers, both professional and non-, both compensated and not, exposure is generally a paramount goal — not for themselves, necessarily, but for their work and their words. That’s why they’re “writers” and not “diarists.” And when it comes to exposure, nothing beats the wide-open web…

Pay models, as walls or any other form, aren’t just business-side structures. They’re both medium and message, and affect all aspects of the news — from the reader to the writer to everyone in between.

There are three points I’d add to Megan’s thesis. The first is that not all writers are equally affected by paywalls. The more you want to take part in the conversation, the more allergic to paywalls you’re likely to be. And Frank Rich is omnivorous in that respect: he loves grabbing ideas from all over the web, linking to them generously, connecting them together, and remixing them in very smart ways.

By its nature, that kind of activity is much harder to do effectively when you’re behind a paywall, since it’s reliant on the people you’re linking to being able to respond to you in turn, and continue the conversation. By contrast, a shoe-leather Metro report about a shopkeeper in the Bronx, say, constitutes essentially a one-way flow of information from the writer to the reader. If fewer readers have access to it, that doesn’t directly affect the quality of the writing.

Secondly, it’s easy but very dangerous to conflate the readership of a website or print publication with the readership of any given writer on that website or in that publication. Jack Shafer does it, and so do sites like Mediaite, when they rank influence according to print circulation and online unique visitors. (Apparently Frank Rich lands somewhere between Rafat Ali and Sebastian Mallaby in the columnists ranking.) But as Nate Silver will happily explain, just because you appear on a high-readership site like the Huffington Post doesn’t mean you actually have any readers — he reckons that the average unpaid blogger on the site gets about 550 pageviews per post, and presumably a similar number of monthly unique visitors.

It seems that Rich is thinking of moving in a sensible direction, at New York: a faster and more vibrant online presence, which can interact with the rest of the web more as it happens rather than weekly, combined with a longer-from monthly column in the magazine, where he can move more in the meaty-and-timeless direction.

It’s entirely possible that Rich’s total online readership at nymag.com will exceed the post-paywall readership he’d have if he kept going with his weekly column at nytimes.com. And it will certainly be more loyal: weekly columns don’t work well on the web, especially not Sunday columns. Shafer talks about the “obvious cues—Sunday morning bagels and coffee, for example—that it’s Rich time”, but I doubt many people look at their sesame-seed bagel with lox and get reminded that they really ought to go find the latest Frank Rich column online. Shafer, of course, knows this better than anybody, working as he does for an online publication which found it necessary to move its publishing pace “from weekly to daily to several times a day” as it embraced the natural velocity of the web.

Finally, Rich is a columnist, and as such he’s a brand in his own right. The NYT has been great at helping Rich build that brand — it’s unrivaled in its ability to bestow traffic and influence on key individuals. But post-paywall, loyal Rich readers will have to pay to read his content, unless they carefully avoid all other NYT articles, or unless they search the web to find a direct link to Rich’s column from somewhere outside the NYT website. Rich’s natural audience is never going to overlap perfectly with that of the NYT; it makes sense that he’s embracing this opportunity to find his own base, rather than continue to piggy-back on that of the Times.

After all, while it’s true that writers care how many people read their stuff, they care even more about who reads their stuff. To take an extreme example, most opinion writers would surely happily sacrifice a million pageviews for the sake of being read by Barack Obama. Rich aspires to a broader audience than that of NYT subscribers: outside the NYT paywall he can reach anybody in the world, and build a web-based franchise where his readers don’t ever need to worry about using up their precious pageview quota. I wish him the best of luck, and I’m quite sure it’s going to be very exciting for him.

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