Last night, the four horsepeople of the Boston Globe's impending paywall apocalypse -- publisher CHRIS MEYER, editor MARTY BARON, chief advertising guru LISA DESISTO, and product lead MICHAEL MANNING -- gathered at the Lippman House in Cambridge to explain themselves to the Nieman Journalism Lab's JOSH BENTON and a roomful of hacks including yours truly. It had the polite but heated air of a dissertation defense: Benton, who wrote the most searching dissection of BostonGlobe.com's launch, grilled the Globe on everything from business models and high-level strategy to digital-divide concerns, and from the nuts-and-bolts decision-making behind keeping the sports section free to the still-perplexing question of, um, whether anyone besides the Globe will care about the distinction between Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.
For all that, the Globe team acquitted themselves admirably: Meyer and Baron downplayed the overall significance of the paywall, bragged about the company's overall reach, and insisted they can keep Boston.com humming along with 7 million monthly uniques -- even without the benefit of all that fancy Boston Globe journalism. DeSisto let slip that BostonGlobe.com's advertising positions are sold out through the fouth quarter, via four partners who agreed to an old-fashioned share-of-voice model. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool cynic about paywalls, and I came away convinced that the Globe has as good a shot at anyone as pulling this thing off. And I say that even though they were being reallllly tight-lipped about the numbers: they are aggressively not saying a word about how many people they've had through the doors of the new Globe site, or even how many they expect to come through the doors when the paywall goes up in earnest at the end of the month. Benton suggested a purely theoretical number -- 50,000 subscribers -- could bring in about $10 million in annual revenue. After the formal questioning, he wandered over and asked Baron whether that was in the ballpark of what the Globe was expecting. A valiant effort. Baron smiled and refused to take the bait.
Mayer argues that because consumers are getting used to paying for content online -- mainly through apps -- that the timing is right to ask them to pay for content. And when Baron says that he thinks most daily newspapers won't put up a paywall this year -- and that the reason will be fear, coupled with the non-trivial degree of technical skill needed to implement a smart paywall -- you get a sense of what's driving the Globe's effort: pride, chutzpah . . . or, for lack of a better catchphrase, SWAG.
All of which was fresh on my mind the next day, when I got a message from someone at the Globe that the Ideas section had launched an official Facebook page, the express intention of which is to publish links that will allow readers of the section to bypass the Globe's paywall.
The mechanics of this are pretty simple -- the understanding inside the Globe is that the paywall will be first-click-free, meaning that if you click on a link to a Globe story from Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, you'll be allowed to read that story, but would be prevented from clicking to more stories within BostonGlobe.com. So there's nothing inherently untoward about setting up an external site that links through to Globe stories -- in theory, that's what the Globe would like you to do.
Still, there's no small irony in the notion that niche sections of the Globe are taking defensive measures to make sure they don't get lost behind the Great Wall of BostonGlobe.com. The paywall's battle stations aren't even fully operational yet, and already the Globe is aggregating itself.
Is this going to ruin the Globe's business model? No. In fact, it's quite smart -- and the Globe would do well to encourage more of this. I've been told in the past that the Globe's older-leaning readership still relies more on email for article-sharing than Facebook