The secret to having a successful paywall around your news is simple — it’s about community

Everyone likes to point to the New York Times as the model for a news outlet with a successful paywall or online-subscription model, but as the authors of Columbia University’s report on “Post-industrial Journalism” noted last year, there is only one New York Times — just as there is only one Wall Street Journal. The only real lesson that these publishers have to teach other news outlets when it comes to paywalls is: “Too bad you aren’t the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.”

Among the smaller players, however, some interesting lessons are emerging about what makes a subscription model work. For me at least, one of the most compelling is that your ability to build and maintain a strong connection to your community is crucial — and the example of Holland’s massively successful crowdfunded news site De Correspondent is a case in point.

Just to recap, De Correspondent is a site founded by two former staffers at Holland’s NRC Handelsblad — an offshoot of one of the country’s leading national dailies — who were dissatisfied with their employer’s weak attempts at adapting to the world of online journalism and decided to strike out on their own. They launched a crowdfunding effort that raised an eye-popping $1.7 million, with more than 19,000 signing up for an annual subscription.

Crowdfunding $2 million per year

According to an update in a recent post at Fast Company, the newspaper now has a total of almost 30,000 subscribers who are paying five Euros a month (about $6.84). That means even if it were to stop growing its subscriber base right now, De Correspondent would still be pulling in almost $200,000 every month from subscribers, or more than $2 million every year.

De Correspondent2

That wouldn’t seem like much if you were running a newsroom the size of the New York Times or Washington Post, of course, but as media analyst Ken Doctor points out in a recent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab, the costs of a digital-only media startup are substantially lower than they are for established entities — which helps explain why so many people are starting them.

De Correspondent also has a 5-percent profit cap, with the rest of its revenues reinvested into the site, and publisher Ernst-Jan Pfauth said the site is already in the black. “If 40 percent of our members don’t renew in September, we will still survive,” he told Fast Company.

Not just readers, but contributors

One of the key principles behind De Correspondent is that the news outlet and its community of readers are two parts of one thing, not just a seller on one side and a consumer on the other. In a telling detail, the Dutch news outlet doesn’t even refer to its reader comments as “comments,” but instead calls them “contributions” — unlike many news sites, which completely ignore and/or downplay comments or reader feedback. Said co-founder Sebastian Kersten:

“The whole platform, we are building that around the dialogue rather than the monologue that it is usually. You as the journalist are the conversation leader.”

As the Fast Company piece notes, a recent editorial meeting was held in a public cafe at a local cinema museum, and each writer is responsible for hosting one get-together a month where readers can come and learn about a topic and/or interact with other subscribers and journalists. Those kinds of real-world events are an important factor in building a community as well — which helps explain why so many media companies are expanding into running conferences.

De Correspondent

The connection to and relationship with readers is further reinforced by the fact that De Correspondent subscribers can subscribe to individual writers, and each writer gets their own area to respond and engage with readers. Beacon, a crowdfunded platform for journalism that launched last year, is pursuing a similar type of approach — readers subscribe to a single writer, but those payments help support the entire stable of authors across a range of subjects.

Readers decide who succeeds and who fails

That connection with readers is also crucial for sites like The Daily Dish, the standalone site launched by former Daily Beast and Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan. By the end of last year, the Dish had pulled in close to $800,000 from subscribers — and in a recent update, Sullivan said that he got close to $500,000 worth of renewal income in just the first two weeks of January. The site has 34,000 paying subscribers and is profitable, he told me in a recent interview.

As I tried to point out in a post last year comparing Sullivan with Amanda Palmer, the alternative musician who crowdfunded an album to the tune of over $1 million on Indiegogo, the crucial element of what both are doing is the connection they have built — and work hard to maintain — with their readers and/or fans.

That’s not to say other things don’t help with paywalls, such as having a valuable niche the way that outlets like the Financial Times and The Economist do — and some startups with paywalls that did have relatively strong connections to their community, such as Matter and NSFW, have not succeeded. But without some strong connection to your readers, you will almost inevitably fail.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni

On free speech and blogging: The First Amendment applies to everyone, not just journalists

When Montana blogger Crystal Cox lost her defamation case in 2011, the decision was greeted by a chorus of cheers from journalists, who were quick to argue that Cox wasn’t a journalist in any real sense of the word, and therefore didn’t deserve any protection from the First Amendment. An appeals court for the Ninth Circuit has disagreed, however: on Friday, a panel of judges overturned the original decision and said that Cox was in fact entitled to protection.

The implications of this ruling go beyond just a single defamation case. It’s another link in a chain of decisions that are gradually helping to extend the principle of free-speech protection beyond professional journalism to anyone who is publishing information with public value — and as such, it helps shift the focus away from trying to define who is a journalist and puts it where it should be: on protecting the practice of journalism, broadly defined.

Legislators who have been trying to design a “shield law” for journalists have been doing their best to specify who should be protected from government interference, but as journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have argued, it is the content itself that requires protecting, not some specific group of professional journalists who are able to fill in the correct checkboxes.

First Amendment protection is open to all


The First Amendment question was crucial to Cox’s case because under U.S. law, journalists are held to a higher standard when it comes to defamation, in the sense that an accuser has to show negligence — in other words, that the accused deliberately printed something they knew was false — and also has to prove damages. The original trial judge decided that Cox wasn’t entitled to this higher standard of protection because she didn’t meet his test for who qualifies as a professional journalist. As he described it:

“The record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law.”

The appeals court rejected this interpretation, however, and took a considerable amount of space in their decision (PDF link) to point out that the free-speech clause of the constitution is intended to cover *anyone* who happens to be saying something of public concern (as defense attorney Eugene Volokh argued in a paper he wrote about the history of the First Amendment), regardless of whether they fit some arbitrary picture of who should qualify as a “professional journalist.”

The Ninth Circuit ruling said that while the Supreme Court has never explicitly said whether a higher standard of proof should be available to anyone beyond the professional media, it has repeatedly refused to give greater First Amendment protection to members of the institutional press. As the higher court put it in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: “We have consistently rejected the proposition that the institutional press has any constitutional privilege beyond that of other speakers.” The appeals court added:

“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable.”

It’s not about who qualifies as a journalist

What makes this case particularly interesting is that — as David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, and Kashmir Hill noted in Forbes — Cox isn’t even close to being what most would consider a professional journalist: she engaged in what amounts to an extended online vendetta against the complainant, an executive with a refinancing company, by setting up websites aimed at discrediting him, and engaged in all sorts of other conduct that most journalists would likely consider reprehensible.

Despite her behavior, however, the appeals court still found that Cox was entitled to protection by the First Amendment because what she was writing about was “a matter of public concern.” And as legal blogger Venkat Balasubramani notes in a post about the case, whether we agree with her tactics is largely irrelevant — if her accuser actually was engaging in the kind of misconduct she alleged, it was in the public interest for her to write about it.

While Balasubramani said that the decision of the Ninth Circuit marks a victory for “the pajama-clad blogger community,” it’s actually a victory for anyone who chooses to publish something that has broad public value — in other words, journalism — regardless of whether they fit the standard description of a professional journalist.

Whether Congress likes it or not, that means it helps extend First Amendment protection to non-journalists who are publishing important information, including sources like WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange. And therefore it’s ultimately a victory for what Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has called “the networked fourth estate.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Jan-Arief Purwanto and Shutterstock / Vlue

Selected excerpts from a Globe newspaper published in Toronto on February 10, 1864

A friend of a friend found an old newspaper inside the wall of a house he was renovating — not an uncommon thing to find, since many people used them for insulation. But this one is really old: it’s a copy of The Globe (a newspaper published in Toronto) from February, 1864. That’s three years before Canada even officially became a country. It was very stiff and damaged by what appeared to be water, but I was still able to make out most of the text on the front page at least.


One interesting thing is that there are ads all over the front page — for things like steamship travel, houses for rent, and new technology like the steam engine and “self-adjusting spring skates,” whatever those are. One steamship company was offering passage from New York to London: a first-class cabin cost $80, a second-class cabin was $50 and steerage was just $30.

Interestingly enough, most of the items on the front page aren’t what we would consider news stories but are letters from abroad, written in a personal style and frequently with little news at all — one reprinted from the London Telegraph is probably over 1,000 words and mentions that Montreal has a population of more than 75,000 and is therefore “the most populous city in British North America.” It also mentions (no doubt playing to the home-town crowd) that “the assertion that the British provinces are anxious to join the Union is baseless and absurd.”

There’s also a notice to the public of “an imposter, wearing the dress of a Roman Catholic priest… he is a drunken vagabond — an Irishman.” And another notice mentions the wonderful new technology of “coal oil” lanterns, describing how people were endangering their eyesight by reading or darning by the light of the fire or a shared candle, and how with this new technology, “each house can have for the same expense a light exceeding half a dozen candles.”


When it comes to ads, in addition to the steamship advertisements, there are ads for spectacles, boots and shoes, live hogs and furniture — but the largest ad stretches the length of the page vertically and is for “Dr. Hoofland’s German Bitters,” which the ad says is “not a rum drink but a highly concentrated vegetable extract” that will “effectively and most certainly cure all diseases rising from a disordered liver, stomach or kidneys.” It then lists the symptoms of these diseases as:

“Constipation, Inward Piles, Fulness or Blood to the Head, Disgust for Food, Sour Eructations, Sinking or Fluttering at the Pit of the Stomach, Swimming of the Head, Hurried and Difficult Breathing, Fluttering at the Heart, Dots or Webs before the Sight, Deficiency of Perspiration, Sudden Flushe of Heat and Constant Imaginings of Evil”

The ad also goes on at some length about how other bitters are “compounded of cheap whiskey or common rum,” and that this class of bitters “has caused and will continue to cause hundreds to die the death of the Drunkard.” And it recommends that Dr. Hoofland’s be used specifically for “delicate children… suffering from marasmus, wasting away, with scarcely any flesh on their bones.” One bottle, the ad says, and “they will be cured in a very short time.”

There’s also a large ad about an estate auction to be held at a law office on King Street “in pursuance of a Decree by the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada, at twelve of the clock noon.” The lots to be sold include one at the corner of Queen Street and William Street with “a Blacksmith’s Shop and a small frame Dwelling House” which are being leased for “24 pounds per annum.”