Charge for reader comments? It’s a privilege, not a right

Here’s an idea that’s sure to shake up a few people.

Publishers are looking to charge for online content. They are looking to develop new revenue streams through ‘pay walls’ that act like a tollgate to their Web site. But instead of a charging a blanket fee to view the entire site, the focus should be on defining “premium” features of the site — content or features on the site that customers would be willing to pay a fee — and focusing on packaging those at a price.

News sites already do that with ther archives and photo. But there’s one area that has great reader interest but seems to be off most publishers’ radar screens in terms of a revenue producer: Reader comments. Why not charge readers for the privilege of commenting on stories?

What, you say? That infringes on their First Amendment rights!

Not really.  Those who use the First Amendment argument of suppressing free speech fail to recognize that the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law  … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”  It says nothing about a business doing such things … and our business is news and content.

If commenting  were indeed a right, then the argument would have to go against newspapers that restrict commenting on certain sensitive stories, or do not provide commenting at all.  If it were a right,  then newspapers wouldn’t have the ability to pull the plug on the whole thing if they wanted to.

Mark Twain had it more on target when he said freedom of the press belonged to those who owned the press.

However, there could be a hidden blessing in setting a premium for commenting. Since story comment first became in vogue, publishers and editors have struggled with the comment ‘trolls’ — anonymous commenters who felt free to make comments that were degrading, droll, or just plain mean-spirited. The trolling of comment board were, at best, annoying and, at worst,  disruptive of the conversation. The trolls tend to live under the false pretense that, protected from true identity by a anonymous moniker, they are free to say whatever they want without regard to the feeling of others. They also tend to be the ones who use the First Amendment argument when banned by administrators.

It’s free speech they crave. If that speech comes at a fee, I think there’ll be fewer trolls to muddy up the public forum.

Is there a precedent in this? Well, I have a license that — after some scrutiny, testing  and  payment of a fee to the state — allows me to drive a car anywhere in the U.S. Every four years or so, I go back and pay another fee to renew my license. As long as I obey the Rules of the Road (read “Terms of Service”) everything is fine. If I kill someone driving while intoxicated, the state can suspend or revoke my license, and I will no longer be able to legally drive a vehicle.

Remember, it’s a privilege, not a right. That privilege hasn’t stopped millions of licensed drivers from plying our nations highways, and it won’t stop the  number of readers who want to have a meaningful discussion in your forum. If anything, it may curb the hooligans who prefer to disrupt the meaningful discussion.

This idea alone won’t save the failing industry. But, add it to the other little costs here and there, and it might help ease the pain until something more substantial comes along.

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Just another brick in the (pay)wall

The more I read about newspapers leaning toward setting up “pay walls” to charge for online content, the more I come to realize that this is just the industry falling back on its old practices.

Newspapers, after all, have a long and storied history for operating with walls, both from within and outside.

You can’t blame publishers completely for this. After all, the very nature of journalism and the need to be unbiased in the reporting of news requires a journalist to be “removed” from the people he or she covers. He must set up a wall between he and those he covers to avoid the illusion of  favoritism or … worse … impropriety. As a result, many of these reporters, as they come up through the ranks of management as editors, become farther removed from the public they once covered.

Newspapers in general have operated in silos for generations. Newsrooms, advertising, circulation, pressroom and packaging have worked in spite of each other to put out a daily product. Departments rarely talked to each other and, in many cases, looked at each other with disdain. Editorial and advertising were the worst, operating in a Cold War-like relationship. They couldn’t live without each other, though they would have liked to.

As a result,  one department’s operations were usually unkown to another, which created another wall…that between customer service and readers. Traditionally, customer service was operated by circulation and were well-versed in newspaper delivery issues. But ask a customer service rep who you need to talk to in advertising about putting in a display ad, or ask who you need to talk to about a story idea, and it’s likely you’ll be transferred to several people before you get an answer … if you get an answer.  If your local newspaper is bigger than, say, 75,000 in circulation, try to call customer service with a non-delivery issue. (This issue is even greater with papers that have outsourced their customer service departments overseas).

So it’s not surprising that publishers, on an effort to turn around bleeding revenue losses, will put in place tollbooths to online contents instead of looking inward and seriously asking “what value does my online product give its customers?”

But, then again, I’m sure the customers will be seriously asking that before plunking down their money. In competitive news markets, the one that has most value will most liekly get away with it.

For the others, they may follow Humpty Dumpty off that wall.