Just when you thought it was safe to go out again… CJR hosts a rollicking debate on the merits of free vs. paid with back-to-back columns that attract the likes of The Wire creator David Simon, the Batavian’s Howard Owens, Press Plus’ Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, ProPublica’s Dick Tofel, Digital First’s Steve Buttry, and many more. And here I was thinking that that discussion was over.
Clearly, it’s not – and judging by the tone and length of the comments, it still elicits a huge level of passion among those committed to some future of journalism.
I won’t try to summarize the discussion – you have to read it for yourself, and in any case, Poynter did a nice job doing that already. But it seems like a good idea to take a step back, make explicit some of the assumptions in the debate, and – hopefully, more importantly – raise some of the questions that are less-discussed when passions run high over the merits of paywalls. (Some of these issues were indeed raised in the debate; they just got drowned out by the rest of the to-ing and fro-ing.)
For the record, I like paywalls – or, to be more accurate, online subscription fees. Or, at least, I have nothing against paywalls. After all, I spent much of my career at The Wall Street Journal, one of the early adopters of paywalls, and now work at Thomson Reuters, which in a sense has an expensive paywall. I like being paid.
So it seems to me there are two basic assumptions behind the free vs. paid debate.
1. Journalism costs money.
2. Online ad revenue can’t cover those costs.
I doubt that many people dispute item 1, although it also appears that we don’t have enough discussion about what kind of journalism we want. Some people talk about investigative/accountability journalism; others about metro paper-type coverage, yet others suggest we should have much more focused news organizations, and some are experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting information.
It’s a critical question, but we don’t spend enough time on it. How should journalism evolve in its most basic form? How do people come to news these days? What do they actually want or need – today, next year and in years to come?
Without debating that – as Ryan Chittum and Clay Shirky sort of did at CJR (and I riffed on here) – it’s hard to figure out how much journalism costs. Not to mention figure out what its real competitive advantages are vs. all the other ways people are getting information they want or need, often for free.
On point 2, I don’t have an issue with that as an assumption, although I know some people do. My belief is that long-term dynamics are against online advertising being a major revenue stream for most information organizations, at least relative to the costs of a major newsgathering operation. But that also speaks to question 1, above – what are the costs of a major newsgathering operation? So I agree it’s a debatable point.
Nonetheless, if you accept 1 and 2, then it leads to:
Conclusion 3: We need other forms of revenue.
For some, that means paywalls, and more power to those who can make it work for them, as, to some extent, the Journal. the New York Times and the FT have done. Whether there should be lots of ink spilled over debating whether or not it should be tried is another issue; this should be a pretty simple empirical question to settle, and it’s not clear in any case that there’s a universal answer. But obviously it’s something that arouses religious fervor in some people.
In any case, the bigger question is whether paywalls will ever come up with sufficient revenue on their own to offset the costs of a major newsroom (and see point 1, above). I don’t believe so, but that doesn’t make me anti-paywall – just that I believe in multiple revenue streams, including online advertising, data, events and other ways of monetizing the organization’s assets (one example: WSJ Wine), as well as subscription dollars.
But there are broader issues. Here’s one: As one commentator at CJR noted, copyright covers the expression of a story and not the facts in it. How do we protect/ensure a return on richly-reported accountability stories (for that matter, any story) if the facts in them can be summarized and disseminated soon after release?
Real-time financial news organizations can charge large sums of money by offering information seconds – or milliseconds – ahead of the competition, because for some people, that’s worth millions. But for the vast majority of ordinary readers/users who aren’t news junkies, a millisecond edge (even several hours’ edge) is simply not a valuable-enough commodity to shell out subscription money for.
If we believe all paywalls leak to some extent – and as far as I can see, they do, whether intentionally or not (or legally or not) – then how do we ensure the monetization of long-form/long-term work, which comes out sporadically but can’t be protected for any length of time by a paywall? If you do a great investigative story once a month – which would be a great pace at a decent paper – in the hopes that people would continue to subscribe to your publication, will that be enough to keep them on the hook? How many would keep paying if they knew they could read the gist of the piece the next day, somewhere else, for free? Perhaps the writing is great, and people want the original story and not just the information in it.
Or perhaps a sense of loyalty – or morality – would keep them paying. Or a sense of community and engagement. But that’s different, in some ways, from people valuing the content per se.
I suspect the answer lies in some combination of tying the day’s story to other coverage on the same topic, personalization, data and user experience (and, of course, structured journalism) – and I’ll write more about that soon – but the broader point is that, if we’re going to be mired in the culture wars of free vs. paid, we’re not going to explore in depth other issues that we really need to dive into.