Monday, January 21, 2013

Will Paywalls & Monetization Change Law Firm Blogs?

The argument is a familiar one: Newspapers and classic journalism are dying because they haven't figured out a way to make money in the Internet age.  In the old world, print journalism dominated everything.  These publications made their money on advertising and paid subscriptions.  There was nowhere else to get information, so virtually everyone was in.
No more.
As everyone knows, it all changed.  Newspapers readership is tanking and will continue to do so.  Many newspapers have shifted much effort and resources online, but major problems still remain.  Most notably, the money that these entities have been able to obtain via online efforts pales in comparison to what they pulled in during their old days of domination.  No one yet knows what the ultimate solution will be.  As before, the two main ways that these businesses will cover their costs online are twofold: online advertising and subscriptions. 
The world of online paid advertising is still developing (think Google Adwords), but there are major concerns about the viability of advertising to cover costs on their own.  The second option--subscriptions--has yet to be fully explored.  So many questions remain.  Will anyone pay for online content? Who will pay?  How much will they pay?  How will all of this affect the way that the Internet works to share information and collaborate?
Right now only a few niche publications have sophisticated subscriptions requirements for their online content, like the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.  A few local newspapers also have subscriptions, which are generally useful only to those who care about super-local stories.  After all, no one is going to subscribe to a hometown paper only to receive AP stories that they can find elsewhere online for free.  The New York Times also has a partial-subscription model, but it is hard to extrapolate principles based on what works for the NYT--the most well known newspaper in the world.
For the most part, these subscriptions were isolated to traditional newspapers.  But a shift may be in the works now, as some of the most popular blogs are now toying with the idea of having readers pay to access their content.  The most high-profile of this is the shift for Andrew Sullivan's "The Dish" to offer a subscription model starting February 1st of this year.  The payments will be minimal (a $19.99 yearly fee for access to unlimited "Read On" articles). 
The Dish's attempt to survive solely on payments by readers is leading many observers to worry how the Internet might change if that model takes off.  The main issue is whether paywalls will limit the ability of bloggers to interact fully.  The internet, particularly the blogging world, lives off free links.  One person writes an interesting story, another shares it on their blog with their own commentary, and then it is off.  The link may be shared on Twitter, spread across Facebook, and generate countless follow up blog posts by others commenting on the original issue.
But what if anyone who went to that original link hit a paywall--they could not view the post unless they bought a subscription.  Why would that individual buy a subscription just to read a single post?  They likely won't.  And the sharing nature of the online world might be stopped in its tracks if the subscription model takes hold.
What does this mean for legal blog writing?  It is hard to say.  On one hand, many topics upon which lawyers might blog are on public issues which may likely be found somewhere online for free--i.e. case opinions.  It is unlikely (we hope) that subscription based models will cut off those sources.  Though, if more of the major legal discussion generators try to make money with subscriptions, more creativity may be needed to generate some blog topics and discussion points that might spread online.  

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