A song to read by: “Righteous Life,” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66
What I’m reading: “How to Survive a Plague,” by David France
If you are a long-time reader of Medialyte, then you probably know that I am a fan of paywalls. In an advertising ecosystem increasingly dominated by the duopoly of Facebook and Google, publishers have found a reliable new source of revenue by putting their most valuable material behind a moat, one that can only be traversed with the help of a debit card.
However, paywalls are not without their detractors. Critics decry the devices as elitist, alleging that the tools privatize important information that should be available free of charge. Plus, when one publisher puts up a paywall it’s an inconvenience; when every publisher on the internet puts up a paywall, it transforms the web into a walled garden, requiring payment at every turn.
While the rest of the media world bickers amongst each other as to the appropriate balance between access and financial sustainability, Don Day, the editor of BoiseDev, has quietly introduced a third option — sort of.
Who is Don Day?
Don Day is a smart guy.
I know this because he was a 2018 John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford, meaning he has thoughts in his head so important that Stanford gave him a year’s worth of money and resources just to think them.
After finishing his fellowship, Day returned to Boise, Idaho, home of the Smurf Turf and the childhood stomping grounds of my own personal dad. There, Day founded BoiseDev, a local news site created in accordance with the leading theories on sustainable media.
On Friday, Day published an article on Medium. In it, he announced that after two years, BoiseDev has reached more than 800 paying subscribers. However, as Day notes, these are not subscribers in the typical sense, because BoiseDev does not have a paywall in the traditional sense. It has a time wall.
A ticking time wall
Paywalls are a relatively blunt tool, but in essence they all do more or less the same thing: prevent non-subscribers from accessing content, forcing them to either subscribe or leave.
In the Extended Paywall Universe there are variations on this theme, including metered paywalls (when you can read, say, 3 articles before the paywall arrives); content-based paywalls (writing related to Covid-19 is free to all readers, but everything else is behind a paywall); and article-based paywalls (this juicy scoop is behind a paywall, while this less remarkable article is free for you to read).
For the last 18 months, Day has been experimenting with yet another iteration of the paywall, which he calls a time wall. The premise is simple, which is part of its elegance.
The BoiseDev site makes a selection of its stories available to members first, which then become available to the greater public later — usually within a few hours. “This gives a tangible benefit to members without locking everyone else out,” writes Day.
No reader left behind
Like the Bush-era education program of a similar name, Day’s time wall concept aims to level the playing field. Unlike the Bush-era education program of a similar name, Day’s time wall concept is a good idea.
The time wall sidesteps any (or at least most) criticism that it privatizes information. Paywalls risk making information a commodity available only to those who can afford it — a bad look if there ever was one.
Time walls, on the other hoof, encourage subscriptions by enticing readers with the promise of first-access, but everyone gains full access eventually. It’s not so much skip the line at Disney World as it is get into the park before everyone else.
Certainly, the draw is rooted in a civic appeal as opposed to an inherently financial one. If you can get the content for free eventually, there is no actual need to subscribe.
But for supporters of local journalism, the time wall offers a tangible perk to complement the feeling of superiority you get from patronizing local news. It’s the “free” t-shirt you find on your seat at the basketball game you paid $100 to go to.
Most importantly, though, by being both exclusive and egalitarian at the same time, it offers a new way of envisioning the paywall experience.
Make the invisible … visible!
I should preface this quibble by saying that Don Day, not Mark Stenberg, is the Stanford Knight fellow. Still, I find one aspect of the system a little baffling.
In Day’s time wall system, the members-only stories are invisible to non-members. This means that non-subscribers literally have no idea what they’re missing.
Above, when I was parsing out the Paywall Extended Universe, I mentioned article-specific paywalls. Digiday does this.
Under such a system, a publisher clearly broadcasts which articles are free to access and which require subscriptions. Naturally, most publishers put their most tantalizing material behind the paywall.
Could BoiseDev do this as well? It would still be just as egalitarian as before, as everyone would be able to read the content eventually, but the teasing “Member Exclusives” might be an effective way to drum up more subscribers.
Plus, if a reader saw an article they wanted to read that was behind the time wall, the promise of being able to read it later might encourage them to return. Whereas most paywalls discourage readers from returning, time walls would incentivize return visitation, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
What are we to make of this development, Mark?
Well that’s a great question.
Are time walls the silver bullet that will save all of journalism? Probably, but we can’t be sure. (I am making a joke here.)
If nothing else, they open up yet another room in the world of the adjacent possible.
With advertising drying up, user-generated revenue will almost certainly continue to play a larger role in the media world. What Day’s time wall suggests is that the paywall concept as we know it is a starting point, not a conclusion.
As media tech continues to skyrocket forward at breakneck speeds, who knows what kind of paywall options will be available in the next 24 months.
Some good readin’
— Just your friendly reminder that 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their pay cut in 2020. If only there was some simple way to help financially support journalism, like … a subscription … or something … something? (Nieman Lab)
— As someone who now writes about Business and Money and the Confluence of Business and Money, I appreciated this exhortation for business journalism to break from its conservative past. (Quartz)
— The Dallas Morning News is unionizing. You simply have no choice but to be helpless in your loving to see it. (Dallas Morning News)
— Of all the precocious tech unicorns that defined the last decade, AirBnb was one of the least hatable. But ask not for whom the IPO tolls. (New York Times)