According to a Wall Street Journal story last week (summarized by Business Insider for those without a WSJ subscription), Google is making some changes that it hopes will improve its relationship with news publishers. Specifically, it’s ending the “first click free” policy that let people access paywalled stories for free if they came in from search results. The change is being sold as advantageous for publishers, who will see a decline in ad revenue from fewer page views but hopefully also see an increase in paid subscriptions that offsets that decline.
The inherent problem with this approach is apparent in the paragraph above. I’ll let you go find it.
See it yet? Yeah, it’s that, lacking a Wall Street Journal subscription, I found and relied on a summary of the story on another, free, site.
This has been an ongoing argument since the advent of the internet and media companies’ first forays into online publishing. Many sites have gone back and forth with various models, from free access to total paywall lockdown to metered freemium and more. Subscription revenue is measured against advertising revenue, each one found wanting at different times.
There are different reasons people will give for the kind of news experience and content they’re willing to pay for. And I’m the first one to say I’d love to pay for online/mobile subscriptions to a dozen papers to support the work the people who produce it do. The reality is I can’t do that right now, so I have take advantage of one of the myriad free alternatives who have developed their own business models. I’ll give them the page view, which results in a small bit of ad income, in exchange for free access.
It’s unfortunate the Google “first click free” loophole is being closed, but I understand the need of the company to play nicely with publishers. They’ve often criticized Google for stealing traffic by showing a synopsis of stories on Google News that discouraged people from clicking through. Some publishers have even, over the years, sought to restrict who could link to their stories, claiming doing so violated their copyright. That was in response bloggers who would excerpt large chunks of stories, making reading the original unnecessary. Eventually they not only lost that fight but the “aggregator” industry was born as sites like The Huffington Post and others made “summarize with a small obligatory link” into their own formula for success.
So I get that publishers want to close any loophole they can. Until there are no longer adequate free alternatives who’ve been able to achieve scaled success with bare-bones operations that draft off the work of larger publications, they’re still going against the tide.
The bad news is the one thing that will kill those trailing outlets is the death, due to lack of ad/subscription revenue, of the bigger organizations they rely on. The smaller startups have diversified their business models through industry events, deep report analysis and more, but they don’t (yet) have the reporting resources that create the stories they’re quick to summarize.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.