Why the newspaper paywall discussion turns into a holy war

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm asks why the paywall argument always seems to become a holy war. (update: Steve Buttry of Digital First Media gives a measured and appropriate response. second update: Hamilton Nolan at Gawker lays down some pretty common sense bullet points about paywalls, viz a viz The Daily Beast and WaPo‘s plans to institute one.)

My answer:

I think part of the problem is pro-paywall people who can’t see that journalism is a separate (and very different) endeavor from publishing or broadcasting. It enjoyed a very long parasitic relationship with them, but viewed properly journalism is a public good in the economic sense, while publishing tends to be more of a club good and broadcasting either a club good or a common good, depending on delivery method.

Whatever the classification, and even if you put publishing or broadcasting into the public good category, they are severable. As the economic climate changed for publishing and broadcasting, with the Internet not only expanding the media landscape but with advertising spending cratering (thanks to recessions and the discovery that many of the ad industry’s metrics were, to put it lightly, slightly divorced from reality), publishers and broadcasters looked to cut costs and journalism, always expensive, lost the support it had enjoyed. Add in many news outlets going public, being bought by profit-obsessed outsiders and piling on debt, and you have a recipe for drastic reductions in spending on journalism.

These changes and the underpinning realities mean that most newspapers are doomed, as are many local television stations and other outlets. They cannot sever themselves from the hosts that are now refusing to support them, they cannot meet the revenue targets set by their corporate masters and they cannot extract from the people formerly known as the audience enough revenue to support them (especially with the same product they’ve been delivering; a product that grows less valuable by the minute). Given these conditions, the new “digital first” initiatives may have the best chance at survival.

I take no joy in saying this. I’m a newspaper man at heart, and even having reached this conclusion, I would jump at a half-decent newspaper job in a heartbeat and drag my poor family along; luckily they’re pretty accepting of this compulsion. But as much as I love newspapers, I realize that journalism is more important (and it’s really at the heart of why I love newspapers). And if we are to save journalism, we have to recognize that the situation has changed and adapt.There’s really no mystery in the rancor of the paywall argument. One side refuses to see that the world has changed and will soon bring a wrenching change to their livelihood; the other can’t get their opponents to engage in serious argument because of this denial, which is extremely maddening. Tempers flare, issues become monochromatic and soon the sides are talking right past one another. The only way out is that reality intervenes, making the denialists face the situation without filters. But when we reach that point, how many newspapers will be salvageable? I fear it will be very, very few.
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2 Replies to “Why the newspaper paywall discussion turns into a holy war”

  1. Regretfully, I must concur in your conclusion. Whether web sites behind pay walls survive remains to be seen but I suspect the future of journalism will be in a few nationally-circulated newspapers of sufficient merit to earn reader support.

    The New York Times probably will be atop the list. I can’t think of another that merits inclusion.

    Let’s face it, journalism as we knew it in the era of local ownership is on its death bed. Corporate greed has supplanted public interest and community service. The informational content of most newspapers has deteriorated to a point at which they’ve become little more than circular distributors.

    Local broadcast media have deteriorated in like fashion. Radio “news” is virtually non-existent and television “news” consists largely of crime and disaster reports. Why? Because they’re readily available and require no investment in professional reporting.

    Perhaps most significantly, there appears no reason to believe that these circumstances will improve. Rather, greed will be the guiding light of the media world, as seemingly already has occurred in government, politics and much of the financial community.

  2. Local ownership was on its way out when the Internet was but an egg; the precipitous decline in ad revenue just ensured the executives wouldn’t have any workable plan before the cliff was undeniable. And even afterward (see the Times-Picayune debacle for a great/terrible example).
    And while Warren Buffet’s interest in buying papers gave some reason to believe, it’s clear that some of his purchases may be unworkable and he’s shown no disinclination to shut down a newspaper he’s bought. It’s clear he thinks there’s still money to be made over and above the debt load he would take on buying them, but is he willing to invest what is and will be necessary to keep them open and operating at the capacity journalists and readers think they ought to be at? Probably not.
    I would love for one of these paywall schemes—even the New York Times’s, an effort which is likely not transferable to a half dozen papers in North America—to succeed, but as Buttry notes, that’s a stop-gap, much like raising per-issue and subscription costs were. If newspapers (and local TV) can’t stop the bleeding, they can reach subscription numbers on a level of their circulation (wildly unlikely) and it will just delay the tolling of the bell.

Tell me what you think