If that’s how paywalls work then we’re utterly flipping screwed

So tonight, for the first time, I went behind Fairfax Media’s pay wall.

Based on that experience, if the future of journalism is paid content then every one of us working hacks is utterly screwed.  

AFR_fail mumbrellaI’ve been looking into the increasingly sorry story of Photon Group.

Recognising that it’s a disaster that’s been a decade in the making, I made plans to be in the office late. Hell, I even popped over the road and bought a banana for dinner.

And then I got out my credit card and handed over $109 for a month’s access to afr.com.au (and to a bonus home-delivered print edition of the Australian Financial Review). I figured AFR would have the info I needed.

I suspect that in these early days – for most publishers – of paid content I’m a relatively typical customer. Not as a journalist, but as somebody who is accessing the content as part of my job. Not for entertainment, but as a tool. The casual surfers will come much, much later –  if at all.

The intial start was not promising.

I went through the sign-up process, but after having my credit card details accepted, the promised email with log-in details failed to instantly materialise. Fortunately, after taking a break to eat the banana, it arrived, and I was away. I hit the archive.

But after reading one story, it was all over.

I got the message:

“Sorry, we’ve encountered a problem

“We are currently experiencing some technical issues that should be resolved shortly.

“Please try again in a few minutes.

“If this problem persists, please report this incident to the Customer Service team.”

I was unable to access any article, even from the home page, let alone from the archive.

Too flipping right I’ll be reporting it to the customer service team. Who of course had all gone home at 5 o’clock.

By the by, It also did seem to be somewhat adding insult to injury to serve me ads promoting the subscription I had just paid for (and indeed a bit of a waste of inventory serving them to logged-in subscribers).

So I did try a few minutes later. And a few minutes later again. Instead, here I am a couple of hours later, like the customer service team, going home.

Of course, this could have been a one-off. Everything may be fine tomorrow.

But tomorrow I’ll be busy with other things. For now I’ve missed my window to work on this project, because afr.com.au’s technology wasn’t up to the job. I paid for the tool and it failed me.

And when you’re paying for a service you expect far, far more than when it’s free.

Australian_ipad_app_ranking mumbrellaIt’s a lesson that media owners are going to need to learn quickly. Much of the early, negative feedback on rival The Australian’s iPad app has been from users  who have paid a relatively small amount but are outraged about the amount of advertising they are (as they perceive it) being force-fed and the lack of a full edition. I suspect that if it was free they’d love the app. But because they are paying (a small amount) for it, expectations are much, much higher.

Same here. If afr.com.au had been open to all, then tomorrow I wouldn’t even remember what just happened.

But they’ve had years to get it right. Indeed, they’ve had six months since its last relaunch to get it right. Our comment thread at the time was notable for two things – the early comment from a subscriber unhappy with the advanced search feature, and the astroturfing from Fairfax claiming that all was well.

So it looks like this wasn’t a one-off.

Still, there is hope. When Michael Gill, the boss of afr.com.au talked to The Australian, he said it would take another six months to get it completely right.

Unfortunately that was three years ago.

Tim Burrowes


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