Robin: I am Robin Miller, “Roblimo” to a lot to you. And today we are talking with Rob Pegoraro, who used to be the tech editor and tech cool guy for a small local newspaper called the Washington Post of which you may have heard. So Rob, what are you doing nowadays?
Rob: Basically, I’ve managed to redistribute the work that I was doing for the Post as the consumer tech columnist for a bunch of different places. So the Q&A column I used to do for the Post, I do pretty much the same thing for USA Today’s website. The tech policy stuff I do for a few different places, most of it is for a blog called the Disruptive Competition Project sponsored by one of the local tech think tanks. The gadget reviews, most of them are for Discovery News but I still do in other places like I reviewed the Galaxy S4 for Boing Boing and events, but I have other clients I can line up in a month.
Robin: So you are sort of like all over the place?
Rob: My wife does the invoices, the tax time is a lot worse.
Robin: Well, we have computers to do our taxes.
Rob: I need people – a person -- to do my taxes.
Robin: What is going on with the newspaper industry? You used to be in it. You were in it for a long time and then one day, bam! you weren’t. What’s going on? Are the newspapers laying off all the good people?
Rob: Well, you are saying I am one of the good people.
Robin: Yes I am... yes I am.
Rob: It is a few different things. It is not that people have less interest in knowing what’s going on around the world around them, I don’t think more people would want to be uninformed or dumb, but if you are in a newspaper you got a bunch of intersecting forces that leave you in a tough spot. You are certainly dependent on print ad sales, so you want to keep hanging on to that income stream as long as you can, and that led a lot of newspapers to be slow to deal with online ad sales, and in things like classifieds that just got eaten out entirely by craigslist, and it’s not there wasn’t fair warning, because before there was a craigslist you could advertise stuff for sale for free and Washington City took pride in that, you know, you didn’t need to pay the Post for a classified when you could do it anywhere using the same really ugly interface because that took a big chunk out of the newspaper business.
And in a lot of the ways, it seems newspapers are still kind of having trouble dealing with ‘how do you market yourselves?’ Every time I go to a site, and this is not just newspapers, it is a lot of political news sites, places that have no attachment to the print universe, you see the same ad styles... they must be making no money from it at all, they are just keeping the inventory around it. So you’ve got that, you’ve got the fact that if you run a newspaper, you have legacy hardware in every sense of the word, you’ve got a fleet of trucks, you’ve got real estate in expensive parts of town, you’ve got a lot of people that you hired, that maybe don’t have the digital skills they need, and you have to sort of make this huge wrenching transition, and a lot of other industries have had to do it even worse. So don’t be too sympathetic to those of us in the journalist rack, we have it better than, say, travel agents, people running bookstores.
Robin: So the newspapers, the journalists, okay we have no sympathy for journalists because a lot of them what’s that?
Rob: No one ever has.
Robin: Well I never thought you did. I mean you get to sit around and drink all the time, go type a little, and that’s it, right?
Rob: Oh, coffee... we drink a lot of coffee.
Robin: One thing I notice, let’s talk about the Post specifically which I used to subscribe to in print, and you used to work for. They are charging ten bucks a month for an online subscription, as is the New York Times. What’s with that? Shouldn’t they be charging around $5 a month? $10 a month in the fixed income, social security world where I live is a whole bunch of money. What’s up with that?
Rob: The pricing of newspaper paywalls, particular numbers don’t bug me that much, because I think the overall strategy is actually not crazy, it is just a freemium strategy, plenty of other sites make it work. I think where it ____4:27 one is you certainly make something that was free for pay but there is no other actual upgrade to it, the whole point of freemium is you should get something you didn’t have before, so when you launch the Pro or Extra or whatever you want to call it, you feel like you have gotten something new instead of just a bill.
The other thing is ____4:49 actually work, like I have thought about subscribing to the New York Times, every single time I see a link on Facebook or Twitter I follow it and ____4:57 dialogue, picking out a footer and header I only know I am going to be able to get it into kind of like A4. And so I haven’t run into a problem with the Post yet, but that should be because they could be in this computer, because we subscribe to the Post as well. I like reading the paper in the morning. The one interesting thing that the Post is doing and I haven’t seen doing elsewhere they said it is logging in from a .edu, .gov, .mil IP address you are ushered over the paywall.
Robin: Well the other thing too is you have to call up the page and you can right click and get the story URL and then you get the page into Google and you can read the story, so the Post is really saying three extra clicks and you can read our story.
Rob: Yeah, I mean the Wall Street Journal is the same where the New York Times they figured out some ways so that you can’t actually get at the text.
Robin: There are ways to read the NYT. I am not going to get into them here, in public, but there are ways to read the New York Times if you are poor and smart. It is all of these paywalls, function as a money or brains test. If you are intelligent, if you act smart you can get around them, I am telling you, you know, the New York Times... they had it and people had it hacked and they changed it, and it was unhacked, then it is hacked again, and it is the usual thing. And like I said the Post... I walk right around that, it is an intelligence thing. So I mean if they made it cheaper, let me ask you, remember music and how people were downloading it, and then it got cheap, and then you said, I don’t need to steal it, it is a buck, remember that?
Rob: Exactly. Well a year before the iTunes sort of launched it, there was an email from a reader at the Post saying I just want to be able to like find a place where I can spend a dollar and that’s exactly what he got and yet, if you are buying music these days and it is available on iTunes or Amazon, you’re good because you are getting it without DRM, you can play it any device you want, you own it unquestionably, you can give it away to somebody else, you got all the fair use rights you had with the CD, and you can back it up and you can fit every song you have ever owned on a device this big. So it is pity that e-books don’t work that way, and downloadable movies sure don’t work that way.
Robin: They don’t?
Rob: Well, you can buy it legitimately, do the right thing.
Robin: I have no comment about that.
Rob: I find it hard to do that sometimes.
Robin: I have no comment about that but why can’t the newspapers learn from this?
Rob: Well, I mean it is not like they are adopting DRM in massive numbers, I think you are going to need a lot of experimentation, people are going to need to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Because yeah, at some level, there is that much interest to people to spend that much time on your site, you have cases at the Post we have readers who would say, I want to pay you something for what I get online. Give me a way to do that. Or even say like I want to pay if I can like not have the really annoying full page flash ad, it gets in the way of everything. And there is no way to do that.
Robin: The Post by the way has disabled AdBlock. You cannot. For money or no, you cannot view Post pages with AdBlock Plus enabled. Not that I would ever use that since this is my going on to an ad supported site, so I would never use AdBlock but if I did, oh boy that sounds tacky.
Rob: Slashdot is funny because if you have high karma you can disable the ads. I wonder how many people actually go after that option, say yeah, remove the ad.
Robin: You know you are right, I never thought about it, because I have always had an editor’s account on Slashdot, since soon after it became Slashdot, soon after Rob Malda - the now Post employee – changed it from Chips 'n Dips.
Robin: Yes, you know he works there, right?
Rob: Exactly, yeah, I remember when he got hired, I thought that’s a really good gig, I hope he can put his talents to work, and not having to get stuck at the PowerPoint stage in making some big change.
Robin: Oh, one can hope, there’d been a lot of effort to get him at the Post, and then back in the backend people to bring in the Slashdot backend and the higher Slashdot engineers, and I presented this over and over again to our various managements as a good side money thing.
Rob: I don’t know why I didn’t run into you at the newsroom at some point?
Robin: Sorry, what?
Rob: I don’t know why I didn’t run into you at the building at some point?
Robin: Well I wasn’t there, I was in other places, and mostly it was conferences, like We the Media where we all were. And the thing is, we could not get our management to join the idea, to do that, I used to say, “Come on, come on, these people they have a budget, they are one of America’s leading newspapers, it's a prestige thing, well worth it, they want our comment system, yeah, we know it is free, they can take it, but they want the expertise. Now, we got some people, and they are cool people...”
So Dice owns it now, and the Post has Rob Malda so we are all happy. So what happens? Are you ever going to work for a newspaper again, do you think?
Rob: Fulltime, probably not. I mean, I should note that I do work as a columnist for USA Today, that stuff is usually not in the paper right now, like one or two things of mine have gotten kind of reverse published at the USA Today, that’s unlikely. Just my column once a week, online on a Sunday, I have done a couple of others, like I covered Mobile World Congress like in a bonus column. I don’t think that got into print.
Robin: Okay, that’s interesting. Because I won’t say his name, but there is a guy in the real world who works for the Tampa Bay Times, local to me, and I joked once, we ran into each other some place, and I said, “Hey, the other day I got the printout version of your column.” I personally realize that I think of USA Today or the Tampa Bay Times or the Washington Post, I think of the online version as the real one, and then they have a printout. Have you moved there yet?
I have not with the Post, I am still used to reading it, you know, it
comes to us at work, and that’s handy... the USA Today is very
real to me in print, mostly
if I am traveling, Times when I go visit my mom in Newark, New
Jersey, she gets delivery to the
NYT, and I actually like to see the big fun club Sunday Times show up and then realize there goes the afternoon, because I am going to read this paper.
Robin: Yeah, but at the end, you can use it to light your charcoal too in the chimney.
Rob: Many different uses.
Robin: But you are online, we’ve moved online, I moved online from City Paper in Baltimore many years ago, we are online, is this how we are always going to get our news from now on?
Rob: I think so, I mean it works, if you wanted to reinvent, if no one had invented the newspaper and you could tell people okay, here’s one way, you just need some server space, you can buy it at somebody’s data center, and everything you publish will be visible worldwide and indexed almost instantly by some site that everyone uses to find things online, you can use it on multiple devices, you can read it in space if you want, or you can buy huge truck-fulls of crushed tree pulp and put ink on these paper things, and then have other trucks go around the neighborhood... Why would you do that? That is crazy, nobody would choose to do things that way, but it is an awkward time when newspapers have this broader economic problem, they have to decide what is it we are going to be good at, what other things people will pay us either in money or in their attention to read, and one of the things that we try to serve, cut back on that, or just let other people take over that entirely a lot of tough decisions.