Evaluating Time Magazine's New Online Pay Wall

Like second marriages, Time magazine's new, extra-confusing pay wall is the triumph of hope over experience. The company has tried this before, and the results were predictable: traffic to the Time Inc. sites cratered and the added revenue from forcing people to buy the print product didn't offset the loss of online ad revenue, not to mention the loss of having a presence online, which for a magazine like Time is crucial. For several reasons I think Pay Wall 2.0 seems destined to, if not fail, to at least not provide, shall we say, the optimal outcome for Time Inc.

Why am I skeptical? Full disclosure: I've been here before, as an employee of Time's Web site when Pay Wall 1.0 went up, and I was very much on the record then as saying this was a dumba-- idea. Then, as now, there wasn't even an option to purchase individual stories online; readers were forced to subscribe to the print product to get a story, though at least in version 1.0 you could read the story online if you were a print subscriber; right now, this new pay wall doesn't even give you that—you have to go out and get an iPad or a hard copy if you want to read all of Brill's cover story this week.

It's not that I'm skeptical of the idea of publishers getting paid directly by consumers (as opposed to indirectly by, say, looking at an ad in exchange for getting a story) for content. And clearly, with The New York Times determined to charge in some way for its content, this is something publishers will figure out. But Time, like most publishers who are going down this route (for instance, the Wall Street Journal's site is totally confusing, with stories either free or paid in seemingly random order), is ignoring a few fundamental rules:

First, make the sell clear, and the transaction frictionless: As a reader on the Time site, I have no indication of what I can get for free and what I have to pay for. Further, I can't even get the thing I pay for on the Time Web site; for that I have to go elsewhere. The only way I even know that there's an expectation that I would pay for it is that sometimes when I click on a story I get a note saying this is an abridged version of a story that ran in print, and for the full version I should drop everything and find a newsstand or break down and get an iPad. Not exactly a compelling, clear incentive to buyers. It's as if the iTunes store worked under a model in which a lot of the songs were free but some of the songs weren't, and you didn't know which was which until you started to download one; further, when confronted with a song that's not free you were informed that you not only had to buy the full album to hear it, you couldn't even buy the full album online. That's a great way to ensure that people simply move on, rather than jump through all the barriers you've put in place to purchase your product.

Second, define a better value proposition: Why should I pay for this? Is Time saying that things from the print version are somehow better than online-only stories? If so, why should I bother to read the online ones, since Time itself doesn't value them? Is it simply because those pieces are online-only commodity bits of information, the kind you can get anywhere? That's the distinction Time Inc. appears to be making—as spokesperson Dawn Bridges told the WSJ's Peter Kafka:

Our strategy is to use the web for breaking news and 'commodity' type of news; (news events of any type, stock prices, sports scores) and keep (most of) the features and longer analysis for the print publication and iPad versions.

Which, OK, sounds like a plan. Except, why would I come to Time for this? I can get the wires from dozens of places, including CNN, MSNBC, etc. that have more complete, up-to-the-minute offerings. And Twitter gives me breaking news faster than any Web site ever could.

The idea that something that appeared in print is automatically worth paying for is nonsense. For instance, if it came down to it, I would pay to read Jim Poniewozik's excellent Tuned In blog. On the other hand, I would expect Time Inc. to compensate me for reading meh content like this, yet this essay, since it ran in print, would be walled off under Time's rules.

Third, remember that people will pay for value. They'll pay for unique content; they'll pay for a better reading experience—like, for instance, an iPhone app that nicely formats the content to fit the small screen, or, like the print magazine itself, which, to many people, is a better reading experience than reading onscreen, and one they are still willing to pay for. What they won't pay for is any random story, simply because Time says they should. In any given issue of Time (or Newsweek, for that matter) it's rare that there's any story that a reader can't find somewhere else, for free.

"I think we'll see what works and doesn't work," Time managing editor Richard Stengel told the NYT. "We'll adapt and change. We're in the hunt like everyone else to figure this out." No offense, Rick, but if this is your first shot, you're not only not in the hunt, you're not even in the field.