Pretty soon, proponents of free digital news will have to own up to the implications of their model.

The structure is flawed. To rely on online ads as the sole source of revenue is both unsound in theory, and in practice it’s having disastrous consequences in regional newsrooms, mostly notable at the Times-Picayune and other Advance Publications papers across the South.

When I wrote my post a couple weeks ago—in the wake of the Journal Register Company’s second bankruptcy—I wondered if I had missed something. Was there a hole in my argument?

I said that the free online game is a volume game: the more posts a news organization publishes, the more hits it will generate, the more chances for something to go viral, the higher ad rates it can charge. To re-quote Felix Salmon:

When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.

Put another way: The free structure carries with it an incentive toward volume that is built into the model. The bias toward quantity is baked in.

And quantity, given limited newsroom resources, is the enemy of quality.

The thing about structure and incentives is that they don’t make certain outcomes inevitable. They just make them much more likely.

You can listen to me, or you can just read this incredible SF Weekly piece on SEO-happy Bleacher Report:

Sample:

Perhaps uniquely among journalistic entities, Bleacher Report has a “blanket policy” forbidding its writers from seeking out and breaking news. A dictum on the site states: “While we don’t doubt that some B/R writers have contacts they know and trust, a problem arises when we’re asked to take a leap of faith that those sources are both legitimate and accurate.”

Under the free model, that makes perfect sense. (Ryan Chittum further explores the implications.)

On the other hand, I argued, a paywall carries with it different incentives. The new revenue stream can be used to help maintain quality, but at the same time, the paper is incentivized to produce journalism that someone might actually want to pay for. In our new disaggregated news environment, when newspapers can no longer rely on omnibus models that had people buying the paper for many reasons (news, horoscopes, grocery coupons, etc.), the paywall can be seen as even more a referendum on quality than in the print days, though I admit the decision to buy a newspaper is complicated. Of course, paywalls don’t guarantee quality. Even Gannett has them.

I appreciate that Mathew Ingram took on the idea. I want to know how “free” actually incentivizes quality. But, really, instead of argument he offers a misrepresentation of what I said, and a rather crude one at that:

But do paywalls automatically mean that you get better journalism? In other words, does a free and ad-supported model mean that the journalism you get is of lower quality, because of the “hamster wheel” effect?

Lyn Headley caught the device right away:

Starkman is trying to look at incentives, and the way they encourage behavior. He’s not arguing that these incentives (page-view counting and things like it) directly result in the behavior (short, limited pieces and frequent publication, aka “hamsterization”), only that they are compatible with it and encourage it. An incentive is like an angel or a devil on the producer’s shoulder, whispering in her ear. Ingram senses, I think, that Starkman wants to show a stronger link than mere association between the incentive and the behavior, and also that Starkman has not shown the link. So he characterizes Starkman as asserting that the incentive “directly translates” into the behavior, whereas Starkman uses other summary phrases (e.g. the behavior is “a logical, if not inevitable result” of the incentive).

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.