FT Claims Paywalls Are Morally Necessary... And Then Shows How Immoral The FT Is

from the that's-not-how-it-works dept

A few folks have sent over the thorough debunking, done by Boing Boing's Rob Beschizza, of the CEO of the Financial Times, John Ridding's recent interview about paywalls (amusingly done with staunchly paywall-free The Guardian). Most of Beschizza's debunking focuses on Ridding's slapping around the old "information wants to be free" strawman, which isn't the argument anyone is making. Yes, Stewart Brand said it a long time ago as a part of a much longer and more complex concept, but there are serious economic and business model discussions held by lots of people that think paywalls are a bad idea, and none of it has anything to do with "Information wants to be free."

But what's even more ridiculous is Ridding's claim that paywalls are morally necessary. Seriously:
There is a moral dimension too, as he makes clear by drawing on the views of Henry Luce, a co-founder of Time magazine.

Luce, quoted in a Time article by Walter Isaacson last February, could not stomach the idea of papers and magazines relying solely on advertising revenue.

He called the formula "morally abhorrent" and "economically self-defeating." A publication's primary duty was to readers rather than advertisers. The advertising-only revenue model is self-defeating, because, eventually, it weakens the bond between publication and reader.
Now, to be clear, the pronoun choices in those sentences are a little ambiguous, so it's not entirely clear if it's Ridding, Luce or Isaacson who specifically said advertising only was "morally abhorrent" and "economically self-defeating." But, either way, it does seem like all three share that general sense. There are a few problems with this, logically. First, it assumes that there are two and only two revenue streams available: advertising and subscription. That is not the case at all.

Second, if it's morally abhorrent to rely on advertising, then pretty much every major publication is morally abhorrent -- including the Financial Times, in getting a pretty good chunk of their revenue from advertising. Historically, if you look at publications, subscription revenue hasn't even covered printing and delivery costs -- meaning that subscriptions were effectively meaningless in terms of actually mattering to a paper's bottom line.

But, the biggest point that disproves Ridding is given by Ridding himself (and highlighted by Beschizza). Apparently, in an interview just a few months ago, Ridding talked up how the subscriptions were useful in getting advertisers to pay more:
"If you have an audience that is paying for your journalism they are engaged and that is an important message for advertisers."
Remember, this is the guy who was just saying that if a publications primary duty was to advertisers rather than readers, it was morally abhorrent. But, even here he admits that the subscriptions are driven by... advertisers. If this was really about getting the influence of advertisers away from newspapers, why is he playing up the increased ad revenue due to the paywall?
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Filed Under: morality, paywalls
Companies: financial times

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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 5 Aug 2010 @ 3:26pm


    You don't understand, dave, that's why Murdoch wants you to feel sorry for him and you should. In fact you MUST.

    It's not only his sad moral obligation to put everything behind a pay wall it's his duty do to so as he must protect the culture, protect starving artists such as Paul Williams and, most importantly "Protect The Children".

    Don't you see what a sacrifice this is for Murdoch? What stress he's under as he does all this for not just his but all our posteriors.....ahhh posterity?

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