paying for it

Just downloaded William Gibson’s collection of essays, ‘Distrust That Particular Flavor.’ Anyone who knows me well knows that Gibson (along with Ross MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Ward Just, Whitney Balliett, a few others) shaped my take on the bigger world and, of course, on writing.

‘Flavor’ strikes me as a good example of what you can get from someone, if he or she is a big enough fan.

First, the list price of the book is $26.95, according to Amazon. I will buy it in both electronic and hardback editions – something I rarely do – and end up paying $29.28, plus tax (Amazon prices, heavily discounted). In one respect, I’m getting screwed by buying the same material twice. But in another, I’m paying just a small premium for what is essentially the ‘deluxe’ edition.

The fact that I want to do this, can’t wait to do it, (and, madly, will even consider getting the audiobook) strikes me as clue to what newspapers might be able to do to help themselves.

My thinking is animated by a new essay from Clay Shirky. I don’t always agree with Shirky, but “Newspapers, Pay Walls and Core Users” strikes me as an important addition to the debate over how newspapers go forward.

In particular, this passage is worth considering:

Paywalls held out the possibility, however illusory, that if all readers could be treated as customers, the organization wouldn’t have to pay much attention to them, except in aggregate. Threshold charges blow that up; a single fee-paying user will generate hundreds of times the revenue of the median, ad-viewing reader. This subjects the logic of the print bundle — a bit of everything for everybody, slathered with ads — to two new questions: What do our most committed users want? And what will turn our most frequent readers into committed users? Here are some things that won’t: More ads. More gossip. More syndicated copy. This is new territory for mainstream papers, who have always had head count rather than engagement as their principal business metric.

Celebrities behaving badly always drive page-views through the roof, but those readers will be anything but committed. Meanwhile, the people who hit the threshold and then hand over money are, almost by definition, people who regard the paper not just as an occasional source of interesting articles, but as an essential institution, one whose continued existence is vital no matter what today’s offerings are.

In discussing why the most loyal subset of readers would pay for access to the Times, Felix Salmon described some of the motivations reported by users: “I like the product, understand the incentives involved, and want its production to continue” and “I feel that maintaining a quality NYT is immensely important to the country as a whole.” Now, and presumably from now on, the readers that matter most are disproportionately likely to score high on the God Forbid index (as in “God forbid the Sun-Times not be around to keep an eye on the politicians!”)

I read in that the same forces that have me buying Gibson’s books in more than one form, have me send money to jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas every year to ‘subscribe’ to his work, have avid Radiohead fans buying ‘King of Limbs’ a couple of times (plus remixes).

I feel connected to Gibson and Douglas, and even though I understand the connection is almost entirely one way, I’m invested in the idea that I’m supporting work that I consider very valuable.

The question becomes – how does an average (i.e. – not the NYT/WaPo/etc.) newspaper do the same thing? How does it have fans that take a deep and wide interest in the paper? (‘Liking’ on Facebook does not, of course, count.)


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