The night after the conference ended, I decompressed in my hotel room with Jonathan Weber, my editorial partner in the Industry Standard, and Steve Ellis, who runs an innovative music company called Pump Audio. Talk turned to what constituted “quality writing” in a journalistic sense. I’m not without a dog in this particular hunt, as it’s been the central premise of both my previous magazine launches, and is at the center of a new venture I’m noodling now that the conference is over. Steve, who is British, asked Jonathan and I if we thought the Wall Street Journal represented the paragon of American newspaper feature writing. And I thought, Jesus, I haven’t read that paper for months. I pay for the online version of the paper, but given how my reading habits have shifted from pull to point*, the Journal simply has not crossed my radar enough to register.
Jonathan and I agreed that the Journal pretty much defined the American standard of good page one feature writing, and I copped to being “Journal blind” for the past few quarters. Talk then moved to The Economist. Goodness, it had been ages since I read that magazine as well. I used to subscribe to the paper version (same for the WSJ), and when I did, I signed up for a few email newsletters as well. But for whatever reasons those came intermittently, and they were not very good. Why, I wondered, were these two august bastions of journalism falling off my reading list?
You’ve already guessed, of course. Both require paid subscriptions, and therefore, both do not support deep linking. In other words, both are nearly impossible to find if you get your daily dose of news, analysis and opinion from the blogosphere.
Sure, The Wall Street Journal supports RSS feeds, but I’ve been a subscriber for two years, and they’ve never bothered to tell me that. (I found out when I went searching for them while writing this post). As far as I can tell, the Economist does not support RSS at all. Even if I did read the Journal’s feeds, I wouldn’t refer to them in any posts of mine, as my readers and community can’t read what I read. More and more, I find that if I can’t share something (i.e. can’t point to something), it’s not worth my time. (Please take note, RIAA…)
Simple RSS support is not the real issue here. The real issue is how paid registration is handled. I find, increasingly, that sites which wall themselves off are becoming irrelevant. Not because the writing or analysis is necessarily flawed (though honestly, I don’t trust journalists who eschew the blogosphere), but rather because their business model is. In today’s ecosystem of news, the greatest sin is to cut oneself off from the conversation. Both the Economist and the Journal have done that.
So what is to be done? My suggestion is simple: Take the plunge and allow deep linking. Notice I did not say abandon paid registration, in fact, I support it. Publishers can let the bloggers link to any story they post, but limit further consumption of their site to paid subscribers.
I’d be willing to wager that the benefit of allowing the blogosphere to link to you will more than make up for potential lost subscribers. First off, if you as a publisher do not offer additional paid subscription benefits beyond the articles themselves, you’re not paying attention to your community. And in any case, many folks will pay to subscribe to a site which is continually being linked to. In fact, I’d wager that the landing pages from blog links might be the most lucrative place a publisher can capture new subscribers. It’s a massive opportunity to convert: the reader has come to your site on the recommendation of a trusted source (the blog he or she is reading). It’s pretty certain that if you make that page inviting, and use it as an opportunity to sell the reader on the value of the rest of your site, that that reader will eventually feel like the Journal is worthy of his or her support.
Why? In short, if a reader finds him or herself pointed to the Journal on a regular basis, that reader knows that by subscribing to the Journal, he or she would be more in the know. After all, all of the blogs read and point to the Journal, the reader thinks, so perhaps I should read it too. Before subscribing, the only time a reader might find out something in the Journal is if someone points to it (a far sight from where things stand today, by the way). But if they subscribe, they can get their own RSS feeds, and be first to know something. And, in the end, isn’t that what drives subscription sales?
Net net, I think allowing deep linking will drive subscription sales, rather than attenuate them.
I’d be interested in Searchbloggers’ take on this idea. I think it just might work.
*”Pull to point” – I find that I read more things that have been pointed to by others, rather than only those which I pull down myself.