Think of this as Volume 16, Number 39 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Since joining TheStreet.com earlier this year, I have been struck by their 1990s' attitude toward links. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
The idea is that, when you link to something, you tell people in the text who you're linking to. Sounds fair, doesn't it?
But what if the story you found on Google News originated with, say, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times? Further, what if you found the story somewhere else, when it was republished by an affiliate?
Who do you link to?
Still, it can be frustrating. Hosers in the business press have found ways to get their links into Google News and then, when I click onto what is essentially a press release or analyst report, hit me with a window over the content demanding registration before I can proceed. It's very stupid, and the audiences these “publishers” get must be really worthless, but there you are.
There will continue to be a fight between Google News and fools of all kinds. They don't warn you of the Times or Journal paywalls, for instance, because those publishers do give a taste of free access, only hitting you with the paywall after you reach a certain threshold of stories per month. Last year they did deals with Google to offer links directly to stories – but no internal links beyond them. This mean the link worked, but you were in a cul de sac. That must have done wonders for their reputations among readers.
Here's the deal. When you put up a paywall, you do more than demand money from people. You eliminate pass-along readership.You pass those benefits – which every newspaper has depended upon since the invention of newsprint – on to someone else.
What is happening in the financial and general news press is not that there are new direct competitors to the Times and the Journal. What's happening is precisely what happened to so-called “monopoly” newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over a decade ago – the death of a thousand cuts.
This happens first on high-value beats, but in time it happens everywhere. In business, for instance, we now have publications like Business Insider, which have figured out that building communities around content is worth a lot more than what a paywall might be worth. In entertainment, there are a host of small publishers eating the lunch of old-time paywall companies like Variety, which now can't draw a bid. (Hey, look, the story is in Business Insider.)
Fact is, The Huffington Post has long made more money from The New York Times' content than the Times, and the Times pulling that content from the HuffPo doesn't mean a thing. They can get it from somewhere else. Then, when you build community around a story, you multiply its financial impact for you, at almost no cost.
Even if you know who your readers are, and can prove to an advertiser that you cover their target market, there is still more money to be made. When I say paywalls are stupid, I don't mean you can't have a paid tier or shouldn't have a registration system.
A registration system can prove to potential advertisers that you know their customers by name, and can help you collect data on the market. Just don't demand registrations until you've earned trust, and give trust back in exchange for the data. This gives you a chance to engage those readers, but just be aware you have something less than transaction permission with these folks – you start pushing spam on them (and spam is in the eye of the beholder), they'll toss it in their spam folders.
Publishers like TPM, originally a blog called Talking Points Memo, have become real news organizations by treating the Web as what it is. They let anyone in, they have an RSS feed to all their stories, they want traffic and don't mind where it comes from. But TPM is now in the process of creating a paid tier of its own.
What will it consist of? Part of it will be the equivalent of “market reports,” only from within their political beat. Some will consist of chats with reporters, and with newsmakers, that only customers have access to. Direct access to the desk is something you can sell. And, just as with NPR or podcast outfits like MaximumFun they can sell based on the idea that you're helping something worthwhile remain around.
For almost two decades, I have been telling publishers that they can grow on the Internet, not decline thanks to the Internet, by knowing their target markets, by leading them down a sales funnel, by creating marketplaces based on the industry, lifestyle or place where they publishe. I am gratified that some have taken my advice, and not entirely surprised that so many publishers declined or refused to take the leap, preferring death to what they considered dishonor.
That's OK. Because there is still an enormous amount of unexplored territory out there for publishers to explore. Start with the word local. Then apply the rules outlined above – know your audience, focus on your market, add registration and pay tiers as you earn that credibility.