Takeaways from paidContent Live: Paywalls, sponsored content and massive disruption

The world of media is being disrupted at an even faster rate than ever, it seems — both the content side and the advertising side — and our paidContent Live conference in New York on Wednesday was full of fascinating viewpoints and analysis from some of the writers, publishers, startups and investors who are playing key roles in that disruption. From the book industry to news and journalism to cable television, business models are being exploded by new entrants and new technologies, and while that causes destruction in some parts of the media industry, it also creates opportunity as well.

There was much talk about both aspects of this ongoing evolution at the conference, from people like star blogger Andrew Sullivan and Tumblr founder David Karp to investor Ken Lerer and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. What follows are just some of the key lessons or moments that struck me as significant during the show (you can also read our live coverage of each session and watch livestreams of each panel as well).

Paywalls vs. open journalism:

During my interview with him, one of the key points that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made was that there is a very clear tension between the efforts by an increasing number of newspapers to erect paywalls — in order to bolster their revenue — and the philosophical approach to journalism that sees openness and interactivity with readers as a cornerstone of what journalism has become. As Rusbridger put it:

“It is journalism that wants a response. It is journalism that is itself responsive. It is journalism that doesn’t just sit on the web as though it has no connection with the web, that acknowledges that the web is the most extraordinary revolution in publishing where lots of people will be publishing extremely worthwhile and informative information. And so you can produce better things by not ignoring it or building a barrier between yourself and that but incorporating it and linking to it.”

paidContent Live 2013 Alan Rusbridger Editor in Chief The Guardian

The many different flavors of paywall:

Much of the discussion that took place on the monetization panel — which featured Dick Tofel of ProPublica, Justin Smith of Atlantic Media, Raju Narisetti of News Corp. (s nwws) and Bob Bowman of Major League Baseball — was about the myriad ways in which media companies can charge for their content. Bowman argued that every media company should be charging its users, even if it is through some kind of “pro” version, and Smith announced that The Atlantic will soon be launching a content offering related to the magazine that will be subscription only, although he didn’t say what kind of content it would be.

Narisetti also talked a bit about his vision of a “reverse paywall,” which focuses more on membership benefits that readers could accumulate based on their engagement with a site — although Bowman said he thought this would just encourage readers to click on ads or perform other tasks in order to get something for free, and that advertisers would quickly see through this gaming and not be interested in advertising around it. Smith also pointed out that The Atlantic‘s event business produces a lot of revenue for the company, and therefore decreases the need for a strict paywall.

No one can agree on sponsored content:

On the panel that focused on the increasingly blurry line between editorial content and advertising, Felix Salmon of Reuters challenged Jon Steinberg of BuzzFeed, Kyle Monson of Knock Twice and Forbes chief operating officer Lewis D’Vorkin to define their terms — but the panelists spent most of their time debating whether “native advertising” of all kinds is inherently unethical or duplicitous in some way (the view held by Andrew Sullivan, who has railed against the phenomenon).

Steinberg maintained that the conventional wisdom that says average readers are confused — and in some sense misled — by sponsored content is hogwash, and that this is essentially a lie perpetrated by traditional media entities who continue to rely on banner advertising for their revenue. According to the BuzzFeed president, banner ads are a dying medium, and some form of sponsored content is the only real alternative. Monson, however, argued that if native advertising becomes too ubiquitous, readers will begin to ignore it the same way they currently ignore every other form of advertising.

Independence is a doubled-edged sword:

paidContent Live 2013 Andrew Sullivan The Dish Andrew Ross Sorkin NYT Maria Popova Brain Pickings Tim Ferriss The 4-Hour Workweek

(L to R:) Andrew Sullivan, Editor, The Dish; Andrew Ross Sorkin, Columnist, NYT; Maria Popova, Writer, Brain Pickings; Tim Ferriss, Author, The 4-Hour Workweek paidContent Live 2013 Albert Chau / itsmebert.com

One of the highlights of the conference for many (including me) was a panel composed of superstar bloggers and authors Andrew Sullivan, Maria Popova, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Tim Ferris. Sullivan has famously bet his livelihood on going direct to his readers for financial support — although he maintained that he is not anti-advertising, as some have assumed. He said he is dedicated to that approach even to the point of not taking a salary until he can prove that the model works, and that he values his independence and his direct relationship with readers over the comfort of working for a large media entity.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, by contrast, has been able to build a fairly large team and business model for himself inside the New York Times — even though he could probably (or theoretically) have created something similar, and more independent, on his own. Sorkin said that his interest in remaining inside a large media entity stems in part from the resources it puts at his disposal, and partly from his commitment to the brand itself, since the paper took a large bet on him years ago when he created DealBook.

There was a lot more to the conference that I haven’t even touched on here — including a startup showcase featuring new platforms like Circa and Branch, a panel on the use of algorith-driven personalization with Mark Johnson of Zite and Aria Haghighi of Prismatic, a great look at the future of books with Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks and Evan Ratliffe of Atavist, a discussion between Om and John Borthwick of Betaworks, and an interview with the architect of Aereo’s ongoing disruption of cable.

Thanks to all those who attended and to all of our speakers as well.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Albert Chau