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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