When I was in journalism school in New York, in the 1990s, one of my classes took a field trip to Bloomberg News, then an upstart wire service. After our tour, we had a q-and-a session Bloomberg’s editor in chief, Matt Winkler. The first question to Winkler was a good one: what was Bloomberg’s best scoop in its young history. Winkler’s response was immediate: one of his reporters was the first to report that tobacco companies were in settlement talks with state attorneys general. As I remember Winkler’s tale, the reporter had literally tracked down top attorneys general in the woods, hurried back and filed the story on a Saturday night. It was hours before the competition matched the news, a major feather for Bloomberg.
“But wait,” my classmate interjected. Who, exactly, was reading the Bloomberg wire at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night? Or, to be cliched about it, if a story breaks in a forest and there is no one to read it, does it really matter?
The famously tempestuous Winkler’s face reddened. “You’d better believe Ted Turner is watching our wire on a Saturday night.” Pause. “Or he pays someone to watch us!”
Winkler’s point was simple: important people read what Bloomberg had to say. Readers paid tens of thousands of dollars to be in the know, and Bloomberg was 100 percent dedicated to serving that small group. They didn’t need a million eyeballs. All they needed was the attention of Ted Turner and a handful of other moguls, execs and investors. And for those folks, the tobacco scoop justified the cost of the content.
I’ve been thinking back to that early interaction with Winkler lately as the evidence has piled up that the future of the newspaper industry will be funded on the back of digital subscribers: those who have anted up (or will ane up) to be let through a paywall. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellent in Journalism says that 450 daily newspapers in the United States have a paywall in place. And Newspaper Association of America said that digital-only subscription revenue jumped 275 percent last year. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a business model.**
This has major implications for how we can examine influence online. There’s still an assumption that the valuable content is the content that’s shared (for an in-depth look at the future of viral news, check out the New York profile of BuzzFeed), but creating viral isn’t the only way to success. The other path, the Bloomberg-esque path, is to create content that’s so valuable that people will pay for it. The knee-jerk reaction used to be that, in a world of nearly infinite information sources, no content was worth actual cash money when there were free alternatives. But that thinking is out the window, disproved by the 640,000 New York Times digital subscribers, the 1.3 million Wall Street Journal digital subscribers, and the thousands of readers at smaller papers who are also voting with their pocketbooks. (Heck, the Rutland (VT) Herald has 5,200 digital subscribers. Not bad for town with a population of 4,954.)
This is good news. It frees newspapers, somewhat, from the tendency to serve up stories that are “viral” or “shareable,” which is altogether different from what is influential, in the traditional sense of the word. As I write this, the most-shared Buzzfeed post is a series of photos of a baby surrounded by bulldog puppies. The New York Times’ most-blogged content over the past week, in contrast, was a preview of President Obama’s budget. People who follow the Buzzfeed trends are likely to be popular with their friends on Facebook, but are going to have a limited impact on society. Those who are reading paid content, on the other hand, those are the people who will be busy moving the world.
(Of course, paywalls are porous and, of course, nearly all web content remains free. But in an era where quick decisions and in-depth information are increasingly prized, those who find workarounds to search for information will be at a disadvantage to those who have it delivered, fresh and unrestricted, to the device of their choice.)
The rise of paid online content and, more important, the rise of an influencer class that is consuming this information, has the potential to re-shape online authority, putting power back in the hands of those with the credit cards. In 1997, when the Bloomberg settlement story broke, the most influential people in the tobacco world were the ones who paid thousands of dollars to have a Bloomberg Terminal on their desks. Today, as in 1997, if you want to be an influencer, you’re going to have to pay for it.
** I’m ignoring the fact that the growth in subscription revenue doesn’t come close to offsetting the still-plummeting advertising revenue. There will clearly be more pain in the years to come. But it’s also clear that subscription dollars are likely to be a stable source of revenue for the foreseeable future.