The Wall Street Journal Isn’t Starbucks

I am at pains here not to seem like a big, gruesome troll. I am therefore going to avoid anything that could be even reasonably construed as an argument anything close to “information wants to be free.” That would give lazy opponents a too easy strawman, which is too bad, because what I’m really giving up, it seems, is arguments stemming from vanishingly small marginal costs. Oh well, such seems to be the price of admission to conversations about the future of news in which curmudgeons may lurk, which is certainly to say nothing at all about whether Mr. Murray is curmudgeonly. (It’s far too early in this post to poison that particular well.)

And so but my question is, “At a human level, why would @alansmurray push us into a paywall when he could avoid it?”

And Mr. Murray’s answer is, “I feel the same way about the folks at Starbucks.”

So let’s take a look at whether it’s an appropriate argument by analogy. Let’s see where it holds up and where it’s weak.

First, the folks at Starbucks rarely know their customers. No denigration to them at all—I’ve put in my time working the Dairy Queen in the mall’s food court—but they have a rote job. Starbucks the corporation may wish it hired pleasant workers, but in truth it doesn’t want to pay for them. Call me cynical or call me a member of Gen M, but low-level food-service workers are not in anything near even quasi-social relationships with buyers of coffee. It’s not their fault; they’re not really paid for their social graces or interpersonal talents. It’s a structural problem.

But Mr. Murray is in an altogether different space. He’s in a space quite literally defined by its human connections. There is little reason to be on twitter at all if it’s not to be social at some level.

And, I can say from my not-so-remote experience in food service that when folks like the folks at Starbucks do find themselves in a social context with customers, they’re deeply tempted to give away product. When I was a kid, working the blizzard machine at the tender age of fourteen, I gave away way more product than I’d like to admit. There was too much soft-serve on my cones. There was too much candy or cookies whipped into my blizzards. And I also just gave it away. Maybe it was part of a swap with the pizza guys or the sandwich guys or the taco guys. Or maybe I just handed out blizzards to all my pals, when the boss wasn’t looking. This corporate-profit-be-damned attitude was rampant across my food court on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, in the second half of the 1990s. It’s called a principal-agent problem, and although it’s not unreasonable for Mr. Murray, an agent, to side with his principal, his analogy hides the difference, pretending it doesn’t exist. (NB. I haven’t a clue whether Mr. Murray is an equity holder of News Corp.)

Also, it’s illegal to give away someone else’s coffee. As best I can tell, however, it’s perfectly within the bounds of the law to encode a long google link within the bit.ly URLs Mr. Murray uses. It’s not against the law for Mr. Murray to route us around inconvenience rather than push us into a paywall. In fact, the route-around is perfectly normal and appropriate. Again, there’s nothing wrong or shady or sketchy about routing around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall. You don’t have to be hacker; you only have to be frugal and spend a few extra seconds and clicks.

But maybe it’s against the rules. Maybe Mr. Murray’s boss has decreed that WSJ employees shall not distribute link that route around the paywall. That doesn’t answer the question, however; it just passes the buck. For why would Mr. Murray’s boss—who is probably Robert Thomson, though I’m not certain—authorize or oblige Mr. Murray’s twittering of paywalled links if he hadn’t deemed it appropriate? Does Robert Thomson believe it makes business sense to twitter paywalled links?

Maybe it is. Maybe Mr. Thomson believes that, if Mr. Murray twittered route-around links to normally abridged articles, then fewer people would pay for subscriptions. And maybe fewer people would. It’s not impossible. Note well, however, that I’m not saying Mr. Murray should hurt his company’s finances by twittering route-around links to normally abridged articles. I’m saying that Mr. Murray might consider twittering only links to normally unabridged WSJ articles and other content around the web. But that would be odd, wouldn’t it? That would be awkward, silly even.

The Wall Street Journal leaves the side-door wide open, hidden only by slight obscurity, but charges at the front door. The Wall Street Journal is wide open. The fact that google indexes its content fully is dispositive—it’s all the proof we need. Let’s try a good old counterfactual conditional: Were the route-around not legitimate, then google would ding the WSJ’s pagerank. But google clearly hasn’t, so the route-around is legitimate.

The point requires an underline lest we succumb to a kind of anchoring cognitive bias. The paywall is not normative. You are not stealing content by refusing to be treated differently from google. In fact, the use of terms like “front door” and “side door” subtly, but completely inappropriately, encodes moral judgments into the discussion. In fact, there are—rather obviously, come to think of it—no “doors” at all. There are, in technical reality, only equal and alternative ways of reading the news. One’s convenient, and one’s not. One’s free, save the attention extracted by on-site advertising, and the other’s not. Maybe one cushions News Corp.’s bottom line, and maybe the other doesn’t. Maybe one supports civically important journalism, and maybe one doesn’t.

At bottom, though, there’s this. Mr. Murray is a human interacting socially with other humans on twitter, saying, “Hey, read this! Trust me: it’s good!” He gestures enthusiastically toward a bolted door, his back disguising an open gateway. “Please, ignore the actually convenient way to take my suggestion that you read this really interesting piece.” Mr. Murray would rather you remain ignorant of a loophole his paper exploits in order to maintain its googlejuice but keep its legacy subscribers. (Note that I’ve pointed out the loophole to several fellow mortgage traders, asking whether they would consider dropping their subscriptions. They all declined, saying they prefer to pay rather than take the time to make the additional clicks.)

I’m not saying it doesn’t make business sense. Businesses are free to capture whatever “thin value” they can, Umair Haque’s warnings notwithstanding. I am saying it doesn’t make human sense. I am saying that particular business practice looks silly, awkward, and disingenuous on twitter. And, ultimately, that’s Umair’s point. In a world of exploding media (PDF), we’re inevitably going to come to rely more on human connections, based on real trust, in order to make choices about how we allocate our attention. Mr. Murray’s cold business logic may work, but I suspect it won’t.

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