The FT backs down on paywalled blogs

By Felix Salmon
November 13, 2012
disappeared behind the FT paywall, with promises that it wouldn't be the last.

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Back in mid-2010, the FT’s Money Supply blog disappeared behind the FT paywall, with promises that it wouldn’t be the last. From the top on down, the general attitude at the FT has been clear: the idea that the FT should publish information for free is “an absurd notion”, and given that the FT’s blogs are part of its high-value content, there’s no reason why they, too, should be free.

The problem was always that the FT’s best blog — representing a large chunk of its most valuable and highbrow content — was its Alphaville flagship, which consistently fought tooth and nail to remain free. Alphaville is incredibly good at reaching the leaders, especially in the US, that the FT desperately wants to reach even if it can’t persuade them to buy a subscription. And with Alphaville free, it was hard to put the FT’s other blogs behind the paywall.

So 2011 came without any new paywalled blogs, and then 2012. Finally, today, in a comment, Alphaville’s Lisa Pollack has announced the FT’s retreat from the whole idea. “The Powers hath spoken,” she writes: “Money Supply will be made consistent with the rest of FT blogs.” Which means that it will be free, at least in monetary terms.

There’s a quid pro quo, though: if you’re not paying in money, you’re going to pay in terms of personal information. From November 19, all FT blogs, including Alphaville, will reside behind the FT’s registration firewall: if you haven’t registered, you can’t get through. The idea is that if the FT knows who you are, it can target its ads better, and get more money for them.

The registration-wall compromise is an interesting one, and seems to be happening with much less fanfare than we heard in 2010, when the paywall went up. If the FT wanted, it could paint this as part of what you might call a ziggurat model: the first couple of articles you read each month are completely free, and then there’s a blog layer which is free with registration, and then there’s a newsier layer which costs a certain amount of money, and then there’s the Lex layer on top of that, which costs even more, all the way up through the high-dollar newsletters and even the subscriptions to services like Medley.

But it’s hard to square a rich free-with-registration layer with the FT’s stated philosophy that if its content is of value, then it should not be free. There are basically two choices here, both unpalatable to the FT. One is that the blog layer effectively institutionalizes the FT’s blogs as a kind of ghetto, and implies that the content on the FT’s blogs is somehow less valuable than the rest of the FT’s content. Alternatively, and more worryingly for the FT’s model, it implies that genuinely web-native content, with links and comments and interaction and everything else we’ve come to love over the past decade or so, is almost impossible to pull off behind a paywall, and that if and when all FT journalism starts embracing such methods, the newspaper’s model is going to run into serious difficulty.

My view is that both are true — at least so long as the FT refuses to follow the NYT and allow free access to people following links from social media or other websites. As long as millions of people hit the FT’s paywall every month, it’s basically turning away the very readers it should be attracting — including, incidentally, a lot of subscribers who get perennially annoyed when they too hit the paywall. The world of online information is becoming fragmented by social media, and people simply don’t read the FT the way that the FT wants them to read the FT: by navigating to the home page and then reading through stories which interest them. They want to talk about stories with their peer groups, and there are very, very few people out there who can comfortably assume that most of their peer group has an FT subscription.

So there’s a big long-term external problem with the way the FT’s paywall is set up — and it helps to create an internal problem, too. So long as the news side rather than the blog side is the part of the business which is bringing in subscription revenue, the FT will overvalue the news side and undervalue the blog side — no matter how important or valuable the journalism produced by the blog side. The result is bloggers who feel underappreciated, and who get the clear message that they should move over to the less web-native news side if they want to climb the FT career ladder.

All that said, it’s still good news that the FT has finally decided to retreat from its decision to paywall its blogs — a decision which was always born more out of ideology than of practicality. I just wonder what’s going to happen if and when the rest of its news hole becomes bloggier, as is happening at all major news organizations.

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