Why I am unapologetic about paywalls or promotionOctober 21, 2013: 10:58 AM ET
Great journalism doesn't come cheap.
FORTUNE -- Late last week I posted a short essay on LinkedIn, where I am an Influencer, called "The best case study you'll ever read." In it, I slagged boring business-school case studies and celebrated a fantastic article in the current issue of Fortune magazine by Jennifer Reingold about the Brazilian private-equity firm 3G Capital's takeover of Heinz. Where I provided a link to the article, I dutifully noted that the full version is behind Fortune's paywall and that a subscription is required to read it. For emphasis I made it clear that I wasn't going to apologize for that fact. Amazing journalism like my colleague's costs money to produce, and we've chosen to charge for it.
As of late Sunday, my post had been viewed more than 83,000 times on LinkedIn and shared more than a 1,000 times by LinkedIn users. There also were nearly 200 comments, the overwhelming majority of which criticized me in some fashion for linking to a behind-the-paywall article in the first place, having the nerve to suggest journalism is worth paying for, "spamming" LinkedIn users -- including those who follow me -- and writing poorly myself. For example, a person with some credentials after his name wrote: "If I can't read it without being a subscriber, don't post it on LinkedIn. I'm less likely to subscribe after this type of empty tease." Someone calling themselves a "strategist" tut-tutted me: "'Bait and Switch' is generally frowned upon by professionals." Another spewed: "Thanks for wasting my time, Adam ... I'm not going to subscribe to Fortune just to read a non-article." Oh, and then there was the reader who accused me of writing the post "in" the toilet.
Where to start? Oh hell, let's start with the ignorance of the commenters. Empty tease? I promise you my referencing our Heinz article is no empty tease. I am recommending to you that you read something I think has great value. It's not like I take to LinkedIn -- which does not pay me to write Influencer posts -- every day. When I do, I have something to say. I'm equally irked by the suggestion of a "bait and switch." Don't worry, I get the bait part. Guilty as charged. You bet I'm trying to bait readers to check out our fine journalism. But switch? Uh-uh, no way. We deliver. And then there is the moronic non-thought behind refusing to subscribe to Fortune to read a non-article. I assure you, there's an article there. And it's good. (Friends urged me not to stoop to the level of commenters , and I've clearly blown that one. But I will leave the toilet comment alone.)
Let's get another thing out of the way here: Journalists don't love paywalls any more than readers. We'd rather more people read our work rather than fewer. What we are rather fond of is being paid for our work. So when management decides -- given what it knows of the costs of producing journalism -- to charge for people to read it, we line up behind the business model and salute. As for those costs, I promise you that when Brian O'Keefe traveled to Ireland to report his gripping Intrade article in the same issue, the airline charged Fortune money for his flight. I know that David Kaplan spent untold hours interviewing people to bring readers a nuanced and surprising look at what former Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz is doing now in Silicon Valley, and Kaplan's time doesn't come cheap. And to give a different example, the photographer we hired to take gorgeous shots to illustrate my article about the redevelopment of the El Toro Marine base in Irvine, Calif., didn't work for us for free.
You're going to have to forgive my tribe for feeling a bit defensive. I get that web readers who expect everything to be free think it's bad etiquette to link to paywall-protected content. You don't need to explain it to me. I think that by making my audience aware of something I think is good I am performing a small service. I am giving them the opportunity to read something they might not otherwise know about. As for whether my sales job is offensive, I'm happy for readers to be the judge. I try to be provocative and tasteful, and I have nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of by encouraging you to read work with which I'm proud to be associated.
But what's particularly irksome is the inability of many to recognize the value of online content. To some extent, these wounds are self-inflicted by my own industry. We've given away so much good stuff over the years that I understand why some consumers, especially younger ones, think things should be free. But "free" content is hardly a new concept. TV and radio were essentially free for decades, and despite the rise of cable TV and satellite radio, they still are. Subscribers to cable and pay radio aren't confused about why they are paying and what they are getting.
I don't need to denigrate ad-supported web content that is able to make money because it is so cheap to produce to make my point. Some of our content is less expensive to produce too, and we make it available for free. But the best stuff -- feature articles in Fortune -- we choose to reserve for paying customers. And by the way, we could change our minds about that in the future. But why argue that you have a right to our product for free just because I told you about it on the Internet?