Marco Arment’s digital magazine and the paywall vs. sharing problem

Gigaom

When it comes to new-media players worth watching, Marco Arment’s iPad-only publication — known simply as “The Magazine” — is at or near the top of the list, if only because it is a totally new, digital-native media venture that appears to already be profitable according to its founder. So it’s interesting to note that Arment recently announced a significant change by making full articles available for sharing on the web via a metered paywall approach. Like so many publishers, The Magazine’s founder is trying to find a happy medium between charging and sharing. But is there one, and if so where is it?

As Arment explains in his blog post about the change, the need to open up his magazine’s content more for sharing was brought home by the response to a recent piece he published by Jamelle Bouie on the topic of race and technology writing. As with most of the essays in The Magazine, the writer was free to publish on his own blog as well, which he did — and while The Magazine’s version got plenty of readers, the response to Bouie’s piece after it appeared on his own site was substantially larger:

“We allow authors to republish their articles on their own sites (or anywhere else) just 30 days after we publish them. Bouie did exactly that, as many of our authors have. Only then did his article explode into the huge discussion I suspected may result from it — and The Magazine wasn’t a part of it.”

The magazine was cut off from the social web

The Magazine wasn’t part of this broader web and social-media discussion because Arment initially showed only a short excerpt at the website — as well as a download link for the iOS app — when readers shared a story. As the publisher points out, since his magazine doesn’t rely on advertising at all but gets its revenue entirely from subscriptions, a web presence with full content seemed like a fairly low priority, if not an outright negative. Arment calls this “the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date.”

“You’d share a link, and everyone would just see the truncated teaser. Some of them would subscribe and see the rest, but most would get turned off by the truncation and just abandon the effort, as we web readers tend to do. Most people with big followings would quickly realize this and, understandably, avoid linking to our articles.”

This is similar to the problem (one of many) that News Corp.’s iPad-only magazine The Daily ran into when it launched: it didn’t even have a website, per se, so initially users who followed a shared link from a subscriber would get a static page. In the early days of the app, in fact, readers were actually sent to an image of the page from the app — something that was impossible to click on or otherwise interact with. The sharing experience was so broken that many likely never bothered.

Where should the freemium line be drawn?

Arment’s problem is a microcosm of the tension that publishers everywhere are experiencing, from the New York Times to the smallest local paper. While some media companies — including News Corp. with some its British papers — have chosen to go with what are called “hard” paywalls, where virtually no content is provided to readers for free, almost everyone else is trying to find a happy medium between that and no subscription barrier or paywall at all.

The NYT started by providing 20 free articles, and giving anyone who came in via a link on social media a free view, a so-called “porous” paywall approach many other newspapers have adopted. But the paper recently cut the number of free articles in half. Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile — who recently launched a standalone blog funded solely by subscriptions — has made virtually of his content free via RSS, but imposed a click-through wall for readers on the site.

The issue for everyone from Sullivan (who will be appearing at our paidContent Live conference in New York in April) and Arment to the New York Times is how much they need to be part of the social web vs. how much they plan to rely on reader subscriptions. A hard paywall essentially means a publication will be supported solely by existing readers, plus a few new sign-ups here and there — but newer or smaller publishers need the word-of-mouth that sharing brings in order to build awareness (and older brands might as well).

As traditional advertising continues to decline in value — something that has taken both the New York Times and the Financial Times to the point where subscription revenue now exceeds advertising revenue for the first time — more and more publishers are going to have to confront this tension between paying and sharing. And in all likelihood, there is no single right answer.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq




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