There's an incident from World War II that I think can teach us something about paid content.
At the end of the first war, the French built a series of defensive fortifications along the border with Germany called the Maginot Line. It was supposed to make it too expensive for the Germans to attack, because they would have to conquer heavily defended positions.
But the Germans simply avoided the line, using new technology to practice fast-moving "lightning war," crossing into Belgium, flanking the Maginot fortifications, and proceeding to Paris.
The obvious application: When we put up paywalls, consumers use new technologies to find ways to go around them.
We shouldn't be able to learn anything from this about paid content, because, after all, we aren't at war with our customers, are we? So, why do I hear language like make them pay?
But there's more to learn.
The French army's goal was to stop the Germans. Our goal should be quite different: to operate profitable businesses, not keep people from getting to what they want.
If the French army had intended to make a profit, they might have approached the situation quite differently.
Instead of "we'll make them pay for conquering this position," they might have looked a little more closely at what their "customers" were trying to do.
The Germans had no interest in controlling some concrete bunker in a field in northern France.
They were trying to get to Paris.
So, the smart entrepreneurial army, understanding the customers' real goal, would have built a really nice six-lane concrete superhighway. Or maybe a tollway, or perhaps une Train à Grande Vitesse, but with the advantages of taking it so overwhelmingly clear that the customers would cheerfully choose it. Why slog through the bumpy countryside when you can travel in comfort?
And then they'd lure the strudel-eaters from the north into a cafe for some warm chaussons aux pommes and a glass of Chablis.
We in journalism so often fail to understand that our potential customers don't want our content in the first place. They want to get to Paris. Their own private, personal Paris, whatever it may be.
One person may be seeking a sense of belonging to a community. Another may be on a personal campaign against property taxes. A third may be focused on school sports, or the arts, or good fishing.
We tend to assume that the journalism we've been practicing for the last century serves these goals well, but that isn't necessarily true, and there may be better routes for each of these consumers to find their Paris.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a fairly active forum of local gearheads exchanging information about their cars and trucks. They weren't doing it on a newspaper site, and I doubt that the local paper even knew that it existed.
What are you doing that helps you understand what your potential customers are trying to accomplish? This is not something you can do in a meeting with a whiteboard. You need to talk with and listen to real people in your community, and do so with an open mind. Your content is not what they want. Understand their ends, and then think about the means.