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In which Adam Lashinsky of Fortune misunderstands both paywalls and social media

Mathew Ingram

In the grand scheme of things, one short blog post on LinkedIn doesn’t seem like it’s worth getting upset about, but there was something about a recent submission by Adam Lashinsky — and particularly a followup post in response to reader criticism — that really got under my skin. At the risk of turning a molehill into a mountain, I think the Fortune senior editor’s attitude in his posts says a lot about mainstream or traditional media’s lack of understanding about online media, and particularly social media.

In his original post, Lashinsky wrote a few short paragraphs about a piece the magazine did on a Brazilian hedge fund taking control of Burger King and Heinz, a piece he said every business-school student should read. Then he linked to an online preview — although he said he didn’t understand why Fortune had decided to put a free preview online, and added: “The kids say they can get everything they need to read for free on the Internet. Sorry. It’s not true.”

What happened then is instructive for a number of reasons: in a nutshell, all hell broke loose. As Lashinsky noted in his follow-up post, his short piece on LinkedIn got more than 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.”

It’s not just about whether it’s free

I looked at all of the comments on Lashinsky’s piece, and he is both right and wrong in how he characterizes them. It’s also worth noting that — as far as I could tell — the Fortune writer didn’t respond to a single comment, positive or negative, which might say something about the overall tone of the responses.

It’s true that many of the commenters seemed irritated by the fact that Lashinsky’s entire LinkedIn post was basically a sales pitch for a Fortune magazine article that was behind a paywall. As one reader put it, in a comment that was up-voted by over 125 people: “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.” Others referred to Lashinsky’s post as “spam,” and said they would not seek out either his posts or Fortune articles in the future.

In his subsequent post at Fortune, entitled “Why I am unapologetic about paywalls or promotion,” Lashinsky defended his original piece and seemed offended by those who complained about his behavior. And he trotted out some of the usual defences for paywalls and the attitude that surrounds them:

“I get that web readers who expect everything to be free think it’s bad etiquette to link to paywall-protected content… but what’s particularly irksome is the inability of many to recognize the value of online content.”

Entitlement is not a viable business model

Lashinsky’s comment immediately reminded me of a great Jeff Jarvis post from 2011, in which he described what he called “hard economic lessons” for news outlets — including the need to dispense with the sense of entitlement that many traditional publishers have about their content. As Jarvis put it: “Should is not a business model. You can say that people should pay for your product, but they will only pay if they find value in it.” Also:

“No one cares what you spent. Arguing that news costs a lot is irrelevant to the market. The only thing that matters to the market is value. What is your service worth to the public?”

Lashinsky is upset that readers don’t want to pay for a Fortune piece that he sees as magnificent, and he adds that he doesn’t understand why his magazine even put a free preview online. In other words, readers should pay for Fortune because, well… because it is Fortune, and because Lashinsky says so. That’s not exactly a great sales pitch, and I think readers were right to point it out. And I think the Fortune editor got mad because he doesn’t really have a response to that accusation except: “Pay us because we deserve it.”

On top of that, posting a short promotional pitch to LinkedIn for a piece you give very few details about is a poor use of the platform. And not even responding to commenters — apart from a passive-aggressive piece chewing them out for not paying for your content — shows a lack of understanding about how social media can help your publication reach new readers, and yes, maybe even get paid.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stephen Brace and Arnold Gatilao and Shutterstock / Daniilantiq

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