Wired gets tough on ad-blockers

Sometimes we get just what we deserve.

This week the news hit that Wired is about to start offering an ad-free edition of its website for a reasonable subscription fee. For $3.99 you get access to a version of the website that shows no ads at all. That’s a pretty reasonable-sounding $1 per week, which seems like a lot for some of the web’s most terrific tech and culture and cybersecurity journalism.

In full disclosure: I worked at Wired.com for four years, 2007-2011, and I still know some of the good people there. I was and still am a strong believer in the website. I like Wired a lot and I want it to succeed.

But it’s the other part of this announcement that will make people upset: If you’re running an ad blocker, Wired.com will now block you. In other words, if you want to read the Wired website, you have a choice: See all the ads, or pay for access to the ad-free edition. It will no longer be possible to hack your Wired.com experience using an ad blocker.

Ironically, the "ad-light" experience actually has more ads than the regular experience.
Ironically, the “ad-light” experience actually has more ads than the regular experience.

How exactly the site will pull this off is still unclear. It’s not the first to fire back at ad-blocking users. I was surprised when visiting Forbes.com last month to see that its usual “please turn off your ad blocker” splash screen had gained the ability to enforce its request: If you keep your ad blocker on, Forbes will no longer let you past that splash screen. I assume Wired will do something similar.

That countermeasure will probably be met by other, more sophisticated counter-countermeasures, and the war between advertisers and ad blockers will continue. But in the meantime, it has already caused cries of outrage about Wired seceding from the open web: “So much for fair use” tweeted Chris Messina.

The critics have a point. Wired’s last experiment with a “closed” publishing platform was its iPad magazine. That project was widely lauded, and won prizes for its beauty and sophistication. It also weighed in at half a gigabyte per issue, and after the initial enthusiasm wore off, struggled to retain readers and generate revenue, according to reports I’ve heard. Among other problems: Advertisers weren’t getting the data they were accustomed to seeing, and readers weren’t able to share and use content in the ways they were accustomed to doing it (tweeting it, Facebooking it, saving it to Evernote, or whatever). Some of those bugs were fixed in later editions but the app never had the seamless ability to interconnect and share that the website did.

A similar fate may befall Wired.com’s new paywall, if it’s not able to find a way to keep the casual browsers and sharers of content engaged. A hard anti-ad-blocking wall may just wind up pissing off those readers, 20 percent of whom are now using ad blockers, Wired reports. (The percentage is even higher at other, more tech-centric websites, I’ve heard.)

Unfortunately, the publishing industry brought this on itself, along with its readers and advertisers. We taught readers over a decade ago that the price for reading high-quality journalism should be zero. We taught readers and advertisers that the most effective form of Web ad was the kind that was most in-your-face: Pop-ups, takeovers, and interstitials. We taught advertisers that Web readers were worth about 1/10 print readers. We continued to exalt print products as the paragon of quality and design, whether that was advertising or reporting: The Pulitzers, ASMEs, and similar industry awards were all slow to embrace online content.

And not only that: Craigslist taught us that the value of a classified ad should be zero. Google and DoubleClick taught us that advertising was a commodity, best bought and sold in an auction market that didn’t differentiate between publications, audiences, or platforms. Apple and Facebook taught us that the best way to engage readers was to forget about the open Web and just develop apps, where you can track people even more closely and deliver any kind of messages to them whenever you want, without restriction.

So yeah, you can see why Wired, like Forbes, has found itself at this desperate juncture. A large and growing segment of its audience has decided to block the site’s primary source of revenue, so it is fighting back with a carrot and a stick. Will the carrot be tasty enough to be worth $52 a year? Will the stick be painful enough to make people whitelist Wired.com in their ad blockers, or cough up the subscription fee?

Or will this just be another salvo in the ongoing war between publishers and their readers?

Woodrat Podcast 21: In which I talk about poetry and technology

Poet and publisher Dave Bonta spoke to me on the phone awhile back for his “Woodrat” podcast. He got me to talk about everything from how I handle submissions to tinywords, what my publishing philosophy is, why haiku is important, and what I learned from studying poetry with Louise Gl├╝ck. We also talked about Twitter, of course, and how haiku is well-suited to distribution via that and other modern technologies.

It’s about 35 minutes long. Dave’s post also includes links to some of my favorite haiku and other micropoems published on tinywords.

Link: Woodrat Podcast 21: Dylan Tweney.

Big Money in Journalism

I’ll admit it: I got into journalism for the money.

Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann has said: “I’ve never met a single person in 35 years who went into journalism out of pure economic reason.”

He never met me. While my motivation wasn’t purely financial, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the primary reason I chose journalism instead of, say, trying to make my way as, say, a poet or a professor of religious studies.

I had just graduated from college with an interesting but totally impractical major in what amounted to postmodern philosophy. I needed a paycheck, and the ice cream shop that hired me for twelve hours a week wasn’t cutting it. I liked writing and had enjoyed working on some college publications, so journalism seemed like a good way to earn some money and have fun while I was doing it. And who knows? Maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer.

But to be honest, my literary aspirations were secondary to the need to make my monthly rent and my lack of obvious qualifications. So when, after a long, hot, nearly-jobless Boston summer, Chris Shipley offered me a job as an editorial assistant at PC Computing, I jumped.

I was lucky. I got into tech magazine publishing by accident (there was a recession on, and neither Mother Jones nor the local newspapers were interested in hiring), but it turned out to be a really good time to be covering technology. Over the next decade and a half I worked for InfoWorld, Business 2.0, Wired, a mobile tech startup called Mobile PC, and a bunch of others. I got to witness — and help cover — the second half of the PC revolution, the rise of client-server computing, the earliest days of online services, the dawn of the commercial internet, and the onset of the mobile era. Those booms fueled a lot of advertising, too. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s, tech publications were awash in cash, so we enjoyed plenty of perks, like offices with killer views, lavish Christmas parties and generous travel budgets. Okay, so I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was doing fine. My wife and I bought a house. We built an addition to the house. We started a family.

So yes, Dean Lemann, I’m willing to stand up and be counted as someone who went into journalism for the money. The bet even paid off.

Along the way, I learned that I love the work: I love the tech and the science stories I cover, I love talking to people to learn how they do what they do, I love telling stories and watching as people read and respond to them in real time.

I’m lucky in a different way, too, which is that I get to be a journalist at a time when the profession is being reinvented and turned inside out.

If going into journalism for the money seems ridiculous now it’s a sign of how attenuated the opportunities are becoming for traditional journalists. Needless to say, the perks dried up long ago. The four years I spent as a freelancer, from 1999 to 2003, were a steady downward arc of income, corresponding to the beginning of the end for the news business. There’s a good chance that I’m making as much money now as I will ever make — without changing careers — and that’s a sobering thought. Every morning when I go to work I think about how lucky I am to be working at all — let alone working in one of the most progressive and open-minded newsrooms in the world. I’m grateful for the opportunity for as long as it lasts.

What’s happening right now is the aggressive reinvention of journalism. Many of the most innovative journalists working today didn’t go to J-school, and some don’t even consider themselves journalists at all. They’re bloggers and writers first of all, and don’t necessarily pledge allegiance to the same motivations or values that inspire traditional journalists. The skills that make them stand out can be learned on the job, or through networks of like-minded writers, not through expensive graduate programs.

But the job remains the same: to tell true stories that inform and entertain.

I’m not convinced that journalism as a profession will even survive the next ten years. The economic conditions that enabled newspapers to support huge numbers of reporters have dried up, and I don’t see any credible way for internet advertising or subscriptions or micropayments to make up the difference. Somebody may invent a really lucrative business model that works, and I hope they do. But I’m not holding my breath.

The writers who are successful at telling true stories will still be around, and may still choose to call themselves journalists. Or they may adopt some newer moniker, or none at all.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as I can. I’m excited about the new tools that we have for telling stories, and I’m glad to be in a place where my job is to figure out how to use tech to find and deliver the news better. I still get excited about the possibilities of technology, and I like writing about it. So I’m not going anywhere just yet.

I may have come to journalism for the money, but I’m staying for the stories.