I love sharing news articles with my friends. Email, social media, Google Reader, even paper clippings…news is meant to be social and articles take on more meaning when sent with a personal context. Some news websites aren’t so happy about this practice, it seems, and they’re paying the price. They would be smart to reconsider the limitations they place on sharing.
I subscribe to The Times, the daily London newspaper published since 1785. It has been owned by News Corporation since 1981 and has operated online behind a paywall since July 2010. The move, echoed by many of News Corp’s publications, was controversial and is analyzed frequently by media scholars. My issue is personal.
This morning, I read an article about the LSE and its current imbroglio concerning a PhD granted to Saif Gaddafi, son of the falling dictator in Libya. I went to share it on Facebook to show friends back home how ‘proud’ I am. This is what I encountered.
If you’ve shared a link before, you know that it pulls the article title and usually the first paragraph so that your friends understand what you’re sharing. Since The Times is behind a paywall that stops even Facebook’s robots, we get nothing of use. Click on the link, and you get an invitation to subscribe instead of the article. Useless. I guarantee you I won’t share it and my friends won’t see it. I’ll go to The Guardian, thanks.
What’s interesting, is that The Times actually encourages readers to share links. In each article is a Facebook Share button. Ok, so maybe I’ll take their preferred route and share the way they want me to share. What happens?
Rubbish! How is this in any way social? No one will click on that link. It tells us nothing about the article and is certainly not helping drive traffic to their website. What is the point of this wall in front of social media?
Shortly after the paywall went up, rival The Guardian printed a story claiming The Times saw a 90% decrease in online readership. Statistics have been provided by the paper itself, although not in robust form, disallowing any sort of deep analysis of the drop. Clay Shirky looked at the drop in readership, estimated to be in the low tends of thousands, and concluded the Times must not be worried:
One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience.
But why not allow people to share articles online? Surely, there must be a way to allow subscribers to share one article with a friend without bugging them to pony up a pound. Allow them to read the article, and begin the pay wall at any click beyond it. Even award points to subscribers that convert their friends to subscribers. It’s a model that embraces the shareable nature of news, instead of penalizing the limited audience of subscribers from engaging their friends and colleagues. This used to be possible, but they’ve since stopped the practice, leaving many people scratching their heads. Roy Greenslade notes the obvious, immediate impact – “What we can be sure about is the way in which The Times has dropped out of the national and international conversation on the web.”
LSE’s Charlie Beckett highlights the importance of creating such a community to justify the existence of a paywall, concluding that The Times does not achieve it. Shirky continues:
If you are going to produce news that can’t be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn’t care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo.
The Times doesn’t seem to mind that its audience has become a small conservative faux-community of active readers that don’t care about sharing articles with friends. It’s unclear yet whether the numbers justify the business model. I know it doesn’t work for me. If I can’t share my articles, I won’t share my pounds. Good bye, Times.