Howard Owens kicks up a six-page-long dust storm at CJR.org today over David Simon’s support of news paywalls.
I appreciate the desire to wrestle with the uncomfortable topic from all sides. I think we all want the same things here — most notably sustainable local journalism — and there are probably as many ways to support that goal as there are local publishers. But, even though what Steve Brill points out in the comments is true, that paywalls aren’t quite the brute-force tools they were even just a year ago, I still find myself very squarely in the “there are lots of other ways to make money before putting up a paywall” camp.
Owens has never been one to mince words, and he’s not about to start here. After citing ten reasons why paywalls don’t work for local publications (Two I know well, from my time as both the established brand and as the insurgent: There are numerous free alternatives in every metro market for news; The barrier to entry for producing local news is quite low in the Digital Age), he signs off thusly:
Newspapers have long suffered from feebleness when it comes to insisting employees go along with changes, and impotency when it comes to spending the money necessary to institute innovative ideas.
Of course, not all of these ideas would have succeeded; innovation is as much about failure as success. But some would have, and collectively they might have made a significant impact on audience and revenue for newspapers.
Newspaper publishers—and the CEOs who hire and fire them—failed, generally, to embrace innovation.
And now, rather than take a hard look at their mistakes and figure out a new way forward, publishers are retreating behind paywalls, which feels like a last-ditch effort to fortify a dying business.
It’s just sad.
Which is true, even if it does continue the fragging-our-own-platoon effect of this argument that’s been raging for more than ten years. As Owens has said for years (and Steve Buttry articulated in an essential 2011 primer on money opportunities for local news organizations) there are lots of ways to generate revenue at the local level. To quote myself from the comments:
Will paywalls work in local markets like Baltimore? I’d argue that we’ve yet to see a strong case in support of that. Even The Sun’s own paywall seems ambivalent about the effort; you have to read 15 stories a month before the pay wall is invoked. At that rate, more than 80% of The Sun’s monthly traffic won’t have any idea that there’s a wall, let alone any ways for the reader to support the paper’s and site’s important local reporting.
Better to give readers reasons to want to support the effort and give them the means to do so, rather than stiff-arm them at the door.
Sounds like a good next list of ten things…