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Behind the Paywall, Part 2: You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Behind the Paywall, Part 2: You Gotta Have a Gimmick

"There is no mass market in pay journalism online," said Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi. "There is so much information on the Internet. The minute you put something behind a paywall, you give an opportunity for someone else to do it for free. Human nature is that if I can get it for free, I'm going to get it for free. If a paywall is going to work, you have to have some extremely specialized information."

By David Vranicar
09/08/11 5:00 AM PT

Behind the Paywall, Part 1: Fan Sites Play Ball

If recruiting followed porn's lead into the world of 900 numbers, it did the same on the Internet. Porn was among the first and most successful industries to charge for content online, supplying a different type of fix for an equally zealous audience.

However, like so many others, the porn industry's ability to charge for content has eroded over time. The sites that charged eventually lost their monopoly on the product, and with that monopoly went the money.

News is another commodity that people have been devoutly unwilling to pay for. Even The New York Times, which touts its journalists as the best in the world, didn't dare charge for content until last spring, when it put up an exceptionally porous paywall that can be traversed for free in about two seconds. Readers can amend the URL, punch a headline into Google News, enter via Twitter and so on. The Times' paywall is as much of a barricade to traffic as a twig in the road.

The failure of paywalls is simply endemic to the Internet, according to Paul Farhi, a reporter for The Washington Post, who has chronicled their plight.

"There is no mass market in pay journalism online," Farhi told TechNewsWorld. "There is so much information on the Internet. The minute you put something behind a paywall, you give an opportunity for someone else to do it for free. Human nature is that if I can get it for free, I'm going to get it for free.

"If a paywall is going to work," he added, "you have to have some extremely specialized information."

Specialize and Monetize

If fan sites are anything, they are specialized. In addition to himself, Jeffrey Lee's Auburn site employs two full-time writers, a photographer, a sideline reporter, and a pair of in-season columnists who deal with nothing but Auburn football and Auburn recruiting. By contrast, The Birmingham News, the largest newspaper in Alabama, has but one Auburn beat writer and one college football columnist.

Sheer logistics make the Rivals site the eminent source of information about Auburn football.

"We're going to go deeper than the paper," Lee said. "We're going to go behind the scenes, we're going to go talk to people off the record, we're going to get scoops on what recruits are saying. That's what you're going to get that you won't get elsewhere."

Getting that information is no cinch. Recruiting experts have to sweet-talk parents, spend Friday nights planted on metal bleachers, and psychoanalyze 18-year-olds whose stories are often contingent upon whom they're talking to.

What's more, college coaches are prohibited by rule from uttering a single word about recruits. So while a beat writer can indeed cover a team, covering the future -- the prospects -- is a whole other story.

"It takes a lot of legwork, a lot of manpower," said Gator Bait publisher David Stirt. "There are some newspapers who have picked up on it, but it takes manpower, and newspapers are shrinking. It's such specialized information, you have to have really strong contacts. It's something that not everybody can do."

As a writer for Counterparties, a Reuters aggregation and media analysis blog, Nick Rizzo has dissected what does -- and more often, what doesn't -- work in the world of paywalls.

While he himself is not a recruitnik, he told TechNewsWorld, fan sites comply with the tenets of lucrative paywalls.

"You need to be offering some kind of original reporting if you're going to have a prayer of having a successful paywall," Rizzo said. "And if you don't work in a front office or on a coaching staff, there is very little information about prospects. So there is absolutely a market for it."

Hordes on the Boards

Just as the content on fan sties is hyper-specialized, so too is the community that congeals around the content.

The Birmingham News website is chock full of news about all things Alabama -- the recent Homewood City Council ruling, the closing of the Lucky Duck Bingo Hall, and so on -- and its audience is accordingly diversified.

However, sites like auburn.rivals.com have a razor-sharp focus. And while this does nothing for Alabamans who want to know about the Jefferson Country budget crisis, it is a haven for football nuts.

"It's about being part of a community," Lee said. "It's about escaping to our own little world where it's nothing but Auburn football and recruiting."

Members of this community -- Lee likens it to a fraternity -- are a social lot. When they read about a sought-after prospect from Georgia, they aren't apt to hum the fight song and shut down the computer. Instead, they take to the message boards by the thousand to discuss, to opine, and to fantasize about what this might mean for the future.

Interest is so intense that fans from the University of Alabama are loath to miss out. There are hundreds of people who pay for access to the Auburn message boards, Lee said, just so they can keep tabs on -- and throw mud at -- their cross-state foes.

Behind the Paywall, Part 3: A Breed Apart


David Vranicar is an American-born journalist who, after a year in China, is currently living in Europe. He has written for a variety of publications, including Deadspin, The Copenhagen Post, The Kansas City Star and The Earth Times. When not trying to find intersections between the tech industry and the world at large, he is writing a book and tweeting @davidvranicar.


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