Paid content and the march to Paris

There's an incident from World War II that I think can teach us something about paid content.

At the end of the first war, the French built a series of defensive fortifications along the border with Germany called the Maginot Line. It was supposed to make it too expensive for the Germans to attack, because they would have to conquer heavily defended positions.

But the Germans simply avoided the line, using new technology to practice fast-moving "lightning war," crossing into Belgium, flanking the Maginot fortifications, and proceeding to Paris.

The obvious application: When we put up paywalls, consumers use new technologies to find ways to go around them.

We shouldn't be able to learn anything from this about paid content, because, after all, we aren't at war with our customers, are we? So, why do I hear language like make them pay?

But there's more to learn.

The French army's goal was to stop the Germans. Our goal should be quite different: to operate profitable businesses, not keep people from getting to what they want.

If the French army had intended to make a profit, they might have approached the situation quite differently.

Instead of "we'll make them pay for conquering this position," they might have looked a little more closely at what their "customers" were trying to do.

The Germans had no interest in controlling some concrete bunker in a field in northern France.

They were trying to get to Paris.

So, the smart entrepreneurial army, understanding the customers' real goal, would have built a really nice six-lane concrete superhighway. Or maybe a tollway, or perhaps une Train à Grande Vitesse, but with the advantages of taking it so overwhelmingly clear that the customers would cheerfully choose it. Why slog through the bumpy countryside when you can travel in comfort?

And then they'd lure the strudel-eaters from the north into a cafe for some warm chaussons aux pommes and a glass of Chablis.

We in journalism so often fail to understand that our potential customers don't want our content in the first place. They want to get to Paris. Their own private, personal Paris, whatever it may be.

One person may be seeking a sense of belonging to a community. Another may be on a personal campaign against property taxes. A third may be focused on school sports, or the arts, or good fishing.

We tend to assume that the journalism we've been practicing for the last century serves these goals well, but that isn't necessarily true, and there may be better routes for each of these consumers to find their Paris.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a fairly active forum of local gearheads exchanging information about their cars and trucks. They weren't doing it on a newspaper site, and I doubt that the local paper even knew that it existed.

What are you doing that helps you understand what your potential customers are trying to accomplish? This is not something you can do in a meeting with a whiteboard. You need to talk with and listen to real people in your community, and do so with an open mind. Your content is not what they want. Understand their ends, and then think about the means.


Great analogy. We become so enamored of what we're doing, we forget what news users want. What news content is "good enough" for the general public in print, broadcast and online? And how can we deliver it to them in the form they want, on their timetable?

. . . take it up one more level. This is a great post, but leaves me wondering if news organizations even exist in the future. Or will there only be organizations that help people get the information they want, whether from their trusted friend, a city employee, the mayor, a coach, etc. It can't all happen in one place which is how most news organizations try to position themselves. Rather, provide services that enable. What about investigative? Well, or something similar will arrive that "enables" the community to get the investigative journalism they need or want in a cost effective and efficient way.

Yes, the Germans flanked the Maginot by going through Belgium, but that was not a cake-walk either, because a similar line of defenses continued along the Belgium-Germany border. The Germans got through only after breaching a supposedly impregnable fortress with some rather novel techniques. Not trying to undercut your main point about journalism, but you did wax rather longwinded on the historical analogy. =)

Right ... the Germans did have Belgian fortifications to deal with. But they used new technology to their advantage. Hitler was touring Paris the month after Germany invaded. By the midpoint of the war, George Patton could declare that fixed fortifications were a monument to man's stupidity.

As is common with analogies, this one is being tortured mercilessly. But I am troubled that far too many journalists seem to regard the situation as one in which they should wage war on readers rather than finding ways to make them happy.

In 1939, the French rallied around their renown Field Marshall Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain. The 'Savior of Vedun's' renown stemmed from expertise at fighting a war more than 20 years earlier. In the years running up to 1939, Pétain strongly supported building the wall proposed by French Minister of Defense André Maginot, and based his military plans on that strategy's assumed effectiveness. The newspaper industry today rallies around its field marshall Keith Rupert Murdoch, whose renown stems from fighting newspaper wars 30 years ago and broadcast wars 20 years ago. He strongly supports walling off his entire industry's assets and appears to be basing his plans on this strategy's assumed effectiveness. I doubt that Murdoch, unlike Pétain, will preside over the surrender of his industry to its arch-nemesis. However, I expect his wall strategy to be as ineffective as Pétain's. BTW, one irony about Maginot himself is he died in 1932, too early to see his wall's results.

The article has a Great analogy.......

So, there was a fairly active forum of local gearheads exchanging information about their cars and trucks and it was NOT on a newspaper web site. OK, we this see it all of the time. And even the guy running it for free, can't make a dime off it. It takes a complete, aggressive marketing package--that can include the newspaper.... Oh, nevermind.... I just finished spending two years and thousands of dollars trying to sell a turnkey marketing package to newspaper to create unique online service for a market (parents of pre-teen and teenage kids). It's dead. Why? I had little trouble getting in front of the C-level executives. (Newspaper people are really nice and kind.) But, the answer I got from most all: "We're going to focus on our primary business." You tell the news industry, "Your content is not what they want. Understand their ends, and then think about the means." But, newspaper people cannot or will not. They want to write articles, take pictures, and do layout. That is what they do. And, they could continue to do that, it they would do more. But, if it's not write, pics and layout...forget it. Steve, this little blog here is a "fairly active forum." It builds the Yelvington brand. But, could it, alone, make money? Of course not. Write a book, become a paid speaker, have a trade show, consult, ...But, a forum/blog alone... forget it. The only people who come close to "getting it" is Cox folks in Atlanta (AJC, etc). And they are struggling.

"We in journalism so often fail to understand that our potential customers don't want our content in the first place." And, judging from the reader's view, the ignorance of the publishers and editors, and of media owners in general, seems to be even worse: They seem to think they have a copyright on the news! But, hell, no, they don't: The news are free, in a democracy you can't keep anyone from reporting what's happening. So, all the media big guns have is a copyright on their own reporting of the news, and often not even that, because all the cutbacks in the newsroom have reduced the quality of the stories to a level where they can't even pass the originality threshold in copyright laws. You simply can't copyright phrases like "tenthousands died in Haiti" or stuff like that. And nobody is willing to pay for reading such trivialities. So, the whole idea about payment schemes that can be found for free everywhere is doomed. The WSJ with its specialized content and lower competition may be able to pull this of, but not the NYT. All Sultzberger and his fools are doing is essentially withdrawing from the battlefield and ensuring their competitors win the day. And if they can't see that, they deserve to fail. Period.