Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Pay to Say, or still Pounding on the PayWall

by Larry Geller

It’s been interesting, trying to promote a value that I’m extremely attached to, and knowing that on the opposite side is a billionaire who feels differently. It’s not exactly David and Goliath, because there’s nothing inherently evil about the idea that a service can be offered for pay. 

But our news is somehow different. It has always been, and IMHO should continue to be, free, because an informed society is necessary for democracy. And I felt that if anyone, a billionaire could pull that off better than most people.

n2d So ok. Today’s installment has an actual success story, and some data. In fact, a colorful graph. We’ll get to it in a moment.

First let’s talk about anonymous comments.

Many of the most vile and obnoxious comments posted on newspaper websites are posted anonymously. I have wondered if newspaper websites that allow these don’t really care, perhaps because each vile commenter and the additional vermin that they attract generate page hits the circulation managers can crow about to their advertisers. The trolls come back again and again to gauge the effect they are having and to see who responds to them.

For those sites that want to clean up their cesspools, a variety of schemes have been used to block anonymous posting, including registration or moderating them out. Or shutting off comments entirely. But simply blocking anonymity raises ethical concerns and doesn’t work perfectly by itself (e.g., people can register under multiple names).

Requiring $240 a year to be spent via PayPal is certainly another way (hey, including tax, that’s about an even thousand $ every four years! Yikes!).

Anonymous comments have value, according to many, including the Washington Post ombudsman.

For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard. [techdirt, Washington Post Ombud: Anonymous Comments Have Their Place, 4/6/2010]

I can sympathize with that. I don’t put bumper stickers on my car because I’d be sad to come out of a store and find my paint keyed or tires slashed (in New York City they also break your windshield).

A secondary benefit, quoting the Washington Post ombudsman again:

He also points out that allowing anonymous commenters has helped to build up a much larger community at the WaPo site, where those users tend to be more loyal and spend more time, even if it's not known who they are specifically.

A third value would be that tipsters or government insiders wouldn’t post if they felt they would be identified. Whistle blowing is also a valuable part of our democracy.

So posting anonymously has real value. I suppose that could be incorporated into Civil Beat if they wished to do so, by allowing a screen name. That would eliminate some of the self-promotion and narcissism that goes with belonging to a gated community, but it could be done. It wouldn’t provide cover for whistleblowers, though.

Civilized conversation works very well without a paywall

There’s data showing that free sites can have great conversations in a free setting. I was pleased to discover Tough love: Gawker finds making it harder for comments to be seen leads to more (and better) comments (4/13/2010) on the Nieman Journalism Lab website. The article is by Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. His bio states that “before spending a year at Harvard as a 2008 Nieman Fellow, he spent 10 years in newspapers, most recently at The Dallas Morning News.” The graph and snippets below are reproduced under their Creative Commons license.

Here’s that chart (click for larger). Below the chart are snippets of the article, which describes the success of the tiered commenting system they chose for these sites.



That chart is, for news organizations seeking to tame their commenters, perhaps the best evidence yet that adding a few obstacles for those seeking the leave their mark on a web page can actually lead to more comments. And better ones, too.

That chart (bigger version here) tracks the number of comments left by month on the Gawker Media blog empire, Nick Denton’s collection of themed sites (Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, et al.). It covers September 2005 to the present. See that big dip on the right? That’s when Gawker implemented a new, stricter commenting system, in which trusted commenters get preferred access to readers and the unknown hoi polloi have to audition for an audience. (We wrote about it at the time; in an internal memo, Denton wrote about “taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge” and said “we’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want — not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes.”)

The article quotes Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett’ satisfied conclusion:

Quality *and* growth — it’s possible! We launched tiered commenting mid-year 2009, and introduced a new process to manage comment volume. Note the dramatic drop in volume, and the subsequent rise (double in 9 months). With this increase, Gawker still has the best commenting system/experience out there — and I usually hear the same from people that want to share their opinion…

Though there were some calls to do so, purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff. We believe pruning, and a commenting platform as we have implemented, will lead to increased participation, while at the same time encouraging quality. This data, and the subjective opinion of many, seem to back this assertion.

Journalism or business model?

If the idea of Civil Beat is to prove a business model (that is, using PayPal for collections and to manage access), they will be successful no matter how many people sign up, unless it turns out to be very few. Those who post pictures and profiles will be satisfied as members of the Club. But if journalism is the objective, then excluding the majority of potential readers indicates failure.

I’ve expressed my disappointment that the Peer News business model, after all the expectations, turns out to be one of exclusion, or Pay to Say.

Will that create a more civilized atmosphere? Sure, the “gentlemen's clubs” that appear in old British novels were no doubt quite civil. Ordinary people could not be members, though they could be servants.

400px-Norske_Selskab_Eilif_Peterssen It’s the same in Hawaii. We have our Pacific Club, our Outrigger Club, probably many more, and we now have Civil Beat.

The justification is that the paywall is needed to keep the conversation civil. It may keep out the trolls effectively, since they can find plenty of other sites to dump their diatribe on. It doesn’t seem to keep out those who can charge the high cost of participation as a business expense.

The Nieman Journalism Lab has demonstrated that a commenting system can be set up without a paywall. Add Peer News’ concept of reporter/hosts and they could put together a valuable journalism site—for all of us. (Reporter/hosts is nothing new, by the way, many authors participate in their site’s commenting system).

How to make money with a free site? That’s still the question. Gawker was happy not to charge for comments. There must be other ways. Public radio and TV have their voluntary models which continue to work well in Hawaii even in a down economy. Enough people recognize the value and exceptional quality of public radio music, news and programming that they support it with their annual contributions.

It works for them because anyone can listen to the radio, so they are fulfilling a public purpose. They meet their payroll and have even expanded their transmitter range.

And for all of us, listening remains free.

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