Aug 222012

“Print is dead.” – Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters, 1984

The Vancouver Sun and Province are moving to a paywall system.

This new “metered” system will help generate revenue to invest in the insightful, award-winning print and digital journalism expected from the biggest and best news team in Western Canada. We remain committed to investigative reporting and working to ensure transparency from governments and public agencies.

All our print subscribers will receive free, unlimited access to and The Vancouver Sun’s mobile apps, included with delivery of their daily newspaper. Once registered, our customers can enjoy all digital content from any computer or mobile device, and join online conversations with journalists and other readers on a range of topics.

I’ve written a few articles for the Vancouver Sun, none recently, and I believe they no longer buy from freelancers anyway. (I’m not a regular reader of the Sun or the Province, and when I do read a print newspaper or check a news site, I prefer the Globe and Mail.) In fact, over my career, only a minority of my paid writing has seen print, and that minority gets smaller every year.

(OTOH, my last magazine piece, with only a small excerpt published online, got the attention of a publisher and my first meeting with a book editor. So there is something to be said for both print and exposure in the right circles.)

I realize that making money in publishing is hard, but I don’t think paywalls are viable in the long run. Maybe for high-status publications like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, but not for the Vancouver Sun or the Province.

Here’s a minor satori I had about publishing and media. While doing research for a job search last year, I found an index of employers in Canada. Skimming the table of contents, I couldn’t find anything regarding publishing. I checked the index and found “Publishing. See Pulp and Paper products” That gave me an unpleasant moment of clarity.

So, from a lot of people’s perspective, on a deep, ancestral level, the publishing industry is not the business of ideas or even entertainment. It’s merely one subset of the larger business of moving tree product around. On the big org chart, the newspaper and magazine business, the paper of record, the first draft of history, is somewhere between the people who make toilet paper and the people who make little paper umbrellas in tropical drinks.

However, the business of ideas has been gradually diverging from the business of pulp and paper, into a new medium with new characteristics. Paywalls represent a last ditch effort to hoard ideas instead of letting them be promiscuous.

The flipside of the paywall model, for the publishing business, is the ad-supported model, where you don’t charge for the content but sell eyeballs to advertisers. If you can figure out how to generate content for free, even better.

A friend just got picked up to blog on the Huffington Post, based on the excellent citizen journalism work he’s doing on his own site. HuffPo has given him a byline, exposure, status (people return his calls when he mentions he works for HuffPo), the rights to his output… everything a journalist could want, except actual money.

I wish him the best, but I won’t be joining him. Years ago, I made the choice not to write for other people for free. I’ve fudged that a few times, but for the most part I’ve stuck to it. That means I’ve spent so much time on certain stories that paid so little that, if I worked it out to an hourly rate, I’d cry. But I still got paid: money in the bank, groceries in the fridge.

Sure I’ve invested a hell of a lot of time and work in my two blogs, and seen only a tiny financial return for it (I still haven’t broken the $10 threshold for Amazon affiliate payback.) But I’ve been working for myself, with my own editorial control, my own rights, etc. I work for free, but I don’t toil for free. If I’m alienated from my labour, you’d damned well better fork over some cash.

So where does this leave my writing career? I’m still going to insist on compensation. My big question right now I how to break into the next tier of paying work.

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