Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another Brick in the Pay Wall

The journey from free news to pay sites is well underway. The latest media giant to make the switch is my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, and I'm dreading it.

Boston.com has been my go-to site for news from home ever since I moved overseas. It's not my homepage (hello, Google!), but it's always the first site that I hit every day after checking my e-mails. The new pay system will essentially sequester all of the newspaper content behind a paywall leaving Boston.com with AP wire stories, bloggers and the Sports section, which will remain free and fully accessible. In addition, Boston.com will be able to feature up to 5 stories from the newspaper each day on the free site, but that's all.

This is frustrating for me because I've been a regular Globe reader since the 4th grade and I was even among the last generation of paperboys for them I the late 80s. Today it remains one of my last links to my hometown and what's going on there. Maybe I should have cut the cord years ago, but I've never been able to walk away from it completely. This may do the trick, though.

I'm a bit of an unusual case since I live overseas (I doubt that the folks at Boston.com have a very large expat demographic that they're worried about), but I'm not even sure if I could justify the cost of paying for the "paper" version if I was still living in Boston. Frankly, it doesn’t pass the smell test for me: Access will cost $3.99 per week, but you can subscribe to the Sunday paper for $3.50 per week and get in that way; it's a pretty obvious ploy to increase Sunday circulation.

Everybody knows that newspapers need to make more money somehow, but this paywall doesn’t feel like the right way. It's basically a retrenchment to the physical paper; it's a step backwards when I think that they should be expanding into different forms of media. They should re-open their Washington bureau and align with outfits like GlobalPost. They should produce more video. They could start broadcasting. They could buy into NECN and produce content with them. They could put some of that behind a paywall. Make the stuff that lives back there premium somehow. Don't make me pay for the same-old, same-old.

Boston's Paper of Record is (insultingly) a subsidiary of the New York Times (which also owns the Worcester Telegram-Gazette), which instituted its own paywall several months ago and, to my own surprise, I have actually come to like it. I even posted on Facebook that I would probably end up visiting the site much less as a result of it, but I'm eating crow now, as I read it just as much as I ever have. It allows for easy circumvention so leeches like me can get onto it for free, but is just annoying enough to get some folks to pay for it, and it has the benefit of helping their circulation, too.

Last month Wired's Felix Salmon wrote a great piece on the success of the Times' rather porous paywall. He posited that letting people get limited, but not exclusive, access to their content makes the Times a more attractive destination than, say, the Wall Street Journal.

If you hit the paywall on a regular basis and barge past it, eventually you start feeling a bit guilty and pay up. By contrast, if you hit the FT or WSJ paywall and can’t get past it, you simply go away and feel disappointed in your experience.

He even noted that given the "gentle" quest from a valued institution to pay a little or make a donation, people tend to actually do it:

Here’s the thing about freeloaders: if they value what they’re getting, a lot of them will end up paying anyway. What happened when the Indianapolis Museum of Art moved to a free-admission policy? Its paid membership increased by 3%. When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts did the same thing, paid membership increased by 33%.

Given their modest success, I wondered why the Globe didn’t just follow its daddy's model, but then I realized that the Times actually produces a shitload of content while the Globe, well, doesn’t.

The division between the website and the "paper" started last week and you can already see the difference. Boston.com has looked mighty thin of late and seems to have basically turned into an AP wire site (which I can get in a million different places in a much better-organized, cleaner format) with lots of trash (i.e. fashion, parties photos and celebrity garbage) that newshounds like myself couldn't care less about. They also seem to be putting their bloggers more front-and-center instead of burying them at the bottom of the site like they used to, turning them into low rent columnists, while the real ones are now hidden behind the paywall. (I wonder how they like the idea of going from a site with 7 million unique hits per month to a subscription-only audience of under 250,000 people.) I'm quickly finding that I have less and less reason to stop there since most of the local news content has been (or will be) put behind the paywall.

Which is, I guess, the whole point of the operation. Unfortunately, while this method may help to stabilize revenues, I don’t see it as being the foundation upon which the Globe can re-build itself into the pre-eminent news organization that it used to be. And that's a damn shame.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You Can only Remember 9/11 if You're on The List

This past Sunday my country stopped to remember the tragedy of the attacks from 10 years ago. What should have been a day for all Americans and sympathetic people from around the world to reflect and support one another was, for myself and dozens of Americans in Beijing, a day when our country turned us away at the door, refusing to let us beyond their velvet rope and forcing us to walk away in dismay.

Here's what went down.

On Friday, I was alerted to a posting in City Weekend announcing a public ceremony to observe the 9/11 attacks:

…A 9/11 memorial service led by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke will honor the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of ten years ago. The American community is invited to come to the U.S. Embassy at 7:30pm on September 11 and light floating lanterns, a Chinese custom for mourning. Those planning to attend must arrive 30 minutes prior to the event and bring photo ID.

I'd already made plans for a private get-together with some American friends (several of whom I had not seen in a while) but decided to delay it by an hour to check this out. My only worry was the "American community" part. My girlfriend, Alya, as I often still find myself amazed by, is a Russian citizen and I was concerned that she might have trouble getting in.

I called the embassy to see if people of any nationality would be allowed to enter, and while the polite woman who answered the phone did not know right away (and could not reach the "duty officer" at that moment), she asked me to call back in a bit and said that she would have an answer then. I  dialed them up again about an hour later and the woman cheerfully told me that the duty officer had told her that it "should not be a problem" getting my girlfriend in because the ceremony was not being held inside a building; it would just be on the grounds.

[An aside: My good friend Iris also called the embassy for some information but had a much worse experience. She said that the person that she spoke with was "rude" and that the call was entirely unpleasant. The embassy has a reputation in Beijing for bad service, lousy communication and general inconvenience.]

Fast forward to 7:00pm. Alya, Iris and I walk up to the security gate and get into line. There is already a sizable crowd gathered:

There were lot of families, contingents of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and lots of people that I did not know. (I don’t hang out with very many Americans here in Beijing.) Between the three of us, we only recognized one face, but I could see that lots of the folks in line were of the full-Expat-package and/or Big Business Owners crowd. A warning bell in my heard started to go off. Where were the "regular" folks: the students and "Halfpats" like us?

As we moved closer we saw that there was a table with 4 people seated behind it, each holding a list of names in front of them. When we got to the front, we were asked for our names and if we had RSVP'd. I said that we hadn't and that we'd had no idea that an RSVP was required.

The way it was explained to me, the event at the embassy was by invitation only. There was never supposed to have been an announcement made on the expat websites and the woman who was coordinating the staff at the gate didn’t even know who had given the information to them in the first place. The best that she could do, she said, would be to put our names onto a waiting list and let us in if some of the invitees who had RSVP'd did not show up.

This did not sit well with me. But then it got worse.

I saw a Girl Scout in uniform turned away, her mother calling out to another parent in the troop, "Did you guys register the whole troop? They're telling me that she's not on the list!"

"Sorry," came another parent's reply from the approved group. "You had to RSVP as a family."


Not only was there no mention of needing an invitation on the expat websites, but there was no mention of the event on the embassy's own site. There still isn’t, in fact. If you want to see what went on, you've got to check out an expat site or China's state news agency, Xinhua. (Really?!) Furthermore, neither I nor Iris were informed when we called to ask about admission that it was invite-only.

And not for nothing, but what the FUCK is the US Embassy doing holding a private 9/11 ceremony in the first place?! Of all of the days to encourage the local American community to come together, this was it! Hell, they should have welcomed all comers, no matter their nationalities!

At brunch earlier that day, an Italian guy that I know came over to me, shook my hand and said in a low voice, "Today we're all with you." People in the embassy should have been falling over themselves to get him, and other like-minded folks, to join the memorial ceremony. This was a missed opportunity to try to engender some goodwill among the international population here.

It seems like a trivial thing, not getting to enter the embassy for a little ceremony, but it was such a symbolic event, and I was in such a patriotic mood, that the experience made me feel absolutely disgusted.

On a day when our country could have reached out and tried to reclaim the spirit of togetherness that was squandered so shortly after the attacks occurred, the US Embassy in Beijing displayed incompetent planning, absent leadership and a laughable lack of vision by not doing so.

Our tax dollars at work.