In May, David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the television shows The Wire and Treme, reiterated his longtime belief that paywalls—and paywalls alone—could save the newspaper business. Our readers reacted—and Simon punched back.
How much longer are we going to have people idiotically proclaim that readers always paid for the news until the big bad Internet came along and newspapers started giving it away for free? Readers never paid for the news. Advertisers did. And now because media companies can’t figure out a way to make 20 percent profits again, we have to pay? I don’t think so. —Anna Tarkov
I will not call you idiotic. I will refrain from any ad hominem. But I will simply state that you are factually wrong. And I have 30 years of mailing monthly checks for my home subscriptions to The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times as evidence. Similarly, there were all those quarters tossed into newspaper boxes and money handed over at newsstands.
The news was always a purchased item for consumers until the advent of the Internet. This is simply fact. If you mean to suggest that circulation costs didn’t actually cover the newsstand costs or the costs of subscription, you are correct. Circulation was a loss leader; advertising was the revenue stream in the pre-Internet age. But this is not the dynamic currently. Currently, the revenue stream of advertising is disappearing and circulation—given that it is digital—is not preordained to be a loss leader. No cutting down trees, no printing costs, no trucks, no truck drivers, no gas, so even if newspapers charged half the cost of a monthy hardcopy subscription, they have the potential to yield profits. And they are yielding profits. The revenue stream from subscriptions online at the NYT is indeed substantial and growing.
Your argument seems to be that newspapers should simply give away their product and die—and indeed they are dying. You offer no alternative but slow suicide. But it costs money to produce a comprehensive news report—lots of money.
It’s the paywalls or death. That the horse has been out of the barn for ten years, and that there are people who will not purchase news—these are not reasons for the industry to take the only viable step to solve an existential nightmare…. If there is another revenue stream beside advertising and subscription revenues, I am ready to consider it. But advertising is not coming back to newspapers on the same scale—Craigslist and department-store consolidation have seen to that, among other trends. The only thing left is to see whether the product is, well, a product, if it will sell. If so, there is a revenue stream for digital journalism, and we can pay for more reporting and editing. If not, better to know right away and cease this long death march of layoffs and buyouts and newspaper reductions. —David SimonThe Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.