Friday, January 21, 2011

Website Redesign and Pay Wall at TDMN

The Dallas Morning News

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News asked readers for their opinion of the newspaper's website redesign. That's easy. The old site was cluttered and navigation a nightmare. The new look is cleaner and more consistent throughout. That's good.

There are still some rough edges. Most annoying: headlines that serve as links to stories don't have dates associated with them. It's impossible to tell if a story is an hour old or several months old. For example, the fourth headline in "Top Stories" for Richardson Berkner sports is "Richardson Berkner 37, Samuell 6." It turns out that's a football score from last November. Hardly a "top story" anymore. A date would help readers know that.

After the jump, why website design is largely irrelevant anyway and the more important issue, the new pay wall at The Dallas Morning News.

Most of the news I read, I read via an RSS reader like Google Reader. In some cases I get the full story right in my RSS reader. In others, RSS gives me the first paragraph or a summary and I can click on the headline to go to the website for the full story if interested. In any case, website organization and navigation become much less important because I organize my news in my own RSS reader. By the way, RSS solves my criticism above about lack of dates on story links. RSS only pulls stories that are new, stories I haven't read yet, into my RSS reader. That's even better than having to look at dates on links to determine if it's a new story.

But all this talk of website redesign is just a distraction from the real change underway at The Dallas Morning News. That's the pay wall it's erected. Some online content is now available only to paid subscribers. Jeffrey Weiss broached the subject parenthetically -- talk about burying the lede:

"(Oh, and while you're perfectly free to complain about the partial pay wall, here's my pre-response: Information doesn't 'want to be free' any more than groceries or car repair 'want to be free.' Those of us doing the reporting, writing, editing and producing hope mightily that what we do that you can't find elsewhere is worth your willingness to pay for it -- either on dead trees or online.)"
This prompted this response from reader "Churchmouse":
"RE: your pre-response. Information DOES want to be free. People are out there providing their own content for each other, ya know. A more productive position might be: "Information wants to be free; analysis will cost you something."

Jeffrey Weiss again:

"Churchmouse, you are defining 'information' the way an IT person would. Data in bits 'n bytes. But analysis has always been part of the newspaper package. Every word you read here has had at least one, and usually several, professional journalists make a decision about whether it belongs. Even down to calling any phone number in a tips box. We don't do simple stenography. ... And even that information (in the IT sense) that you think wants to be free was almost certainly originated by somebody whose remuneration for that work included cash and health insurance."

Churchmouse is right that information wants to be free. He's thinking in an IT sense. Jeffrey Weiss is right that information is expensive. He's thinking in a content creator sense. The Stewart Brand quote both are referring to, in its entirety, captures this paradox:

"On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

What Jeffrey Weiss implies, by not listing any other options, is that a pay wall is the only way, or maybe the only way left, to extract revenue from valuable information. That's highly debatable. For much of the last century, radio and television companies made millions of dollars broadcasting their valuable creative content over the airwaves, free to anyone with a radio or television and an antenna. They made money because there was a third party (advertisers) willing to pay top dollar to insert himself into the exchange between content creator (television producers) and consumer (couch potatoes).

Advertising is not the only way of monetizing creative content. I recommend reading "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business" in Wired magazine for a discussion of other business models. Here's an excerpt:

"In the traditional media model, a publisher provides a product free (or nearly free) to consumers, and advertisers pay to ride along. Radio is 'free to air,' and so is much of television. Likewise, newspaper and magazine publishers don't charge readers anything close to the actual cost of creating, printing, and distributing their products. They're not selling papers and magazines to readers, they're selling readers to advertisers. It's a three-way market. In a sense, what the Web represents is the extension of the media business model to industries of all sorts. This is not simply the notion that advertising will pay for everything. There are dozens of ways that media companies make money around free content, from selling information about consumers to brand licensing, 'value-added' subscriptions, and direct ecommerce. Now an entire ecosystem of Web companies is growing up around the same set of models."

The Dallas Morning News's pay wall is the "freemium" business model, where much of the content is given away for free in the hope of attracting customers willing to pay for premium content. It's questionable whether there are enough such consumers for The Dallas Morning News to succeed. There are just too many alternative sources for news. My guess is that a "freemium" business model was seen as the least bad card to play in the bad hand held by The Dallas Morning News. Classified ads lost to Craigslist. Department store and auto dealer ads spread over a much wider media base. Shrinking base of print subscribers. As other revenue sources dry up, the News tries to extract more money from the remaining online customers, customers used to having others pay for the content, customers who will find other options springing up to take advantage to fill the gap left by the News's retreat behind its pay wall. There's a chance this latest move by the News will only accelerate a downward spiral.

In short, Jeffrey Weiss, the new website of The Dallas Morning News looks pretty, but the troubles that need fixing are more than skin deep.

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