Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Frockwriter turns four. Where to from here?

4th july barbie/the couture touch

It’s the fourth of July, which makes it American Independence Day. And of course, frockwriter’s birthday. Now we are four. At this time, I usually take a moment to reflect on some of the highlights of the previous year. On this occasion, I’d like to take a more holistic view of the blog’s entire four year career, including some reflections on the experiment with the Press+ metered paywall, which was introduced in February. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do believe frockwriter is the world’s first fashion blog to introduce a paywall. As a guinea pig in this arena, I would like to provide some insights. It has been quite an interesting perspective on consumer behaviour.

First up, what has frockwriter achieved in four years?

Hopefully, brand recognition as a credible source of independent fashion news.

Regular readers of the blog know how many of its original stories have been picked up by Australian and international media outlets. Just this week, our story about the world’s biggest model agency, IMG Models, opening up in Sydney and the speculation that Miranda Kerr would be the agency’s first client, was picked up by The Sunday Telegraph, with more coverage to come, we hear.

Sometimes these media outlets provide a mention and occasionally, also a link. Many others don’t. Free PR and traffic are great, but unless you can monetise, they’re not worth much.

I have in fact yet to meet an Australian fashion blogger who is actually making a living out of blogging. The penny really dropped on this when I interviewed Gary Pepper Vintage’s Nicole Warne during MBFWA in Sydney in May and she told me that in spite of having a combined social media audience of 1.2million – including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram fans and blog traffic – she has yet to make a living out of blogging. Warne’s fulltime job for the past two years has been her online vintage store. Perhaps things have changed since Warne joined the Fellt ‘bloglomerate’, who knows. It's very early days. 

Advertising, you say? I have tried advertising. It has brought in a small trickle of income – less than the Australian tax-free threshold in fact, so clearly not a living. Sure, if the blog’s numbers were bigger, there’s the chance it might generate more advertising revenue. But this is a Catch 22 – because I can’t make a living out of the blog, it’s a hobby, not a job and I can’t devote enough time to blogging to get those numbers up. A key commonality shared by so many of the names who have launched successful international blogging careers is often I feel, overlooked - a number got the momentum for their blogs going while living at home for several years, rent-free. They include Mashable’s Pete Cashmore.

I have spent four years building a name for frockwriter. That it has had a small modicum of success is probably not that surprising. I am a professional freelance fashion journalist and my day job is selling news ideas to mainstream outlets. So many of frockwriter’s stories might just as well have been published elsewhere. Unlike so many who are paid a fulltime salary to cover the fashion round – certainly in Australia – I don’t sit around waiting for press releases or news to be broken elsewhere, so I can fill up my space quota. If a story does not have a good news edge, I can’t sell it. 

But blogging is like Kryptonite to a freelance journalist and you risk cannibalising your own ability to make a living – both in the time spent away from professional writing and in story ideas.

In February, I took the fairly radical step of introducing a metered paywall, in the hope that the blog’s dedicated fan base might be interested in supporting it. As most bloggers could attest, in any given month, first-time readers usually account for 90-odd percent of a blog’s traffic. These readers are interesting to advertisers because they pull in the numbers, however they are not your dedicated, core readership.

The core readership is comprised of those people who visit a blog on a continual basis and who essentially hang on its every word.

Yes traffic took a hit the nanonsecond the paywall went live. That was to be expected. And I must say, I thoroughly respect the decision of those readers who voted with their eyeballs and said, when push comes to shove, although I was a regular reader, I don’t value this blog enough to warrant paying a subscription fee and I am going to go elsewhere. Perhaps some didn’t want anyone else to know they were reading (to this end, just a reminder that while I get daily subscription reports from Press+, there is no information about individual subscribers).

Far more problematic, however, are the thousands of others who visit many, many more times above the eight free post threshold and who have taken deliberate steps to disable the paywall. They completely blow out of the water the theory espoused by so many, that people won’t pay for news because they can get it elsewhere.

If you visit a blog hundreds of times a month, it is patently clear that you do not feel that you are able to get that information from elsewhere. The truth is, you value that content quite highly. You just don’t want to put your hand in your pocket.

You probably won’t hear The New York Times and others who have adopted a similar metered paywall system talk about this – but my hunch is they ignore the undoubtedly large numbers of people who use a variety of easily-sourced tactics to circumvent their subscription models, assuming that there’s going to be a decent enough percentage of their readership that won’t know how to do this who will subscribe. In the case of The New York Times, half a million apparently fall into the latter category. That's enough to pay a hell of a lot of overheads.

Retailers refer to this problem as as “shrinkage”. Sure, they expect customers to pay for their merchandise and take adequate steps to protect same – and, it goes without saying, could not operate their businesses without money being exchanged for the goods. But they know that there are always going to be shoplifters who walk out the door with goods stuffed under their jumpers.

I was dismayed to see this pattern emerge the minute the paywall went up. I initially set the meter at eight free stories, thinking this was fair. In fact, eight posts a month was more than I had been able to post for most of the previous year, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with more content.

In the first month, almost 2,500 people jumped the paywall. In the second month just over 3,000. In the third month, almost 4,000. It became clear that it didn’t matter how much effort I put into blogging, how much content I provided, they were still going to thumb their noses at the subscription model. In fact their numbers increased the more I blogged. You can do the math as to what that equates to in lost revenue.

How do I know they “jumped” the paywall? Because analytics programs provide quite detailed information about reader behaviour and in each case I have measured those readers who have visited the blog more than eight times a month. There are thousands of people who visit frockwriter hundreds of times a month. Given that I don’t post hundreds of times a month, I am at a loss to tell you what they are looking at. 

Do they include companies whose products and models I have promoted? What about those parties who regularly do a cut-and-paste of frockwriter’s content and plaster it on their own websites and forums? In copyright terminology, that is not what’s referred to as “fair use” by the way. I could provide numerous examples.

I know for a fact they include at least one friend, whose work I have promoted on the blog and to whom I have also given work. They happily told me that the reason they jump the paywall is because their own blog is free and “the culture of blogging is free”. 

Well that’s fine and dandy but just a reminder that I am not The New York Times, News Limited or Fairfax. I am an independent journalist who derives their living from selling news and I haven’t done a terribly good job at that since I launched frockwriter. The blog is not filled with offcuts from paid work or outfit and travel posts and on-the-fly photos at fashion events. Sure, I do post these sorts of things – but on frockwriter’s Posterous site and via Facebook and Twitter. This year’s MBFWA coverage was exclusively done on all three, as well as a separate live blog called Uncut.

Frockwriter, as it stands, is the premium content. The blog is filled largely with original reporting, which in many cases takes some time to research and produce. That's what people seem to value the most. 

I have little doubt that frockwriter's dedicated legion of fans who don’t see the need to support independent fashion journalism, even though they are avid consumers of it, includes a mix of people who expect to be paid for their own labour; people whose living costs are subsidised by mum and dad; and possibly also some of the numerous news professionals who pore over the posts the minute they are published, whose domain names are clearly visible in daily tracking data. These people are paid to do their jobs and now in Australia, with paywalls descending on both the News Ltd and Fairfax sites, even their work is behind a paywall. I'm not going to be anyone's indentured news slave. 

You can bang on as much you like about how the internet should be free but at the end of the day, it’s just not fair.

It’s not fair to me and it’s manifestly unfair for those incredibly generous people who have bought subscriptions – all 25 of them. I really appreciate your support. How many others would buy subscriptions if they had no other way of accessing the blog? That's the unknown factor.

I do have options.

Waiting for the Press+ code to be modified is one of them. Note, those who disable the paywall automatically lock themselves out of using frockwriter's Disqus comments system which requires cookies – and, hilariously, often nevertheless attempt to leave comments via the old, disabled Blogger system (and which remain stranded in Blogger limbo). WWD, Crikey, The Australian Financial Review and others may well have a component of free content on their websites, but their premium content is behind hard paywalls. You are not getting around those.

I could even make the blog visible exclusively to subscribers. That seems like a fairly draconian option. But it is precisely how a number of blogs operate out there - visible to invited readers only. 

And, of course, I could stop blogging altogether. If the latter transpires, I will refund all subscribers. 

So there you have it.

Happy Independence Day. 


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