And citing, as Ingram does, Huffington Post and The Washington Post absolutely does not invalidate the reasoning.
First, WaPo the newspaper, with its free online model, is a huge money loser, subsidized by other parts of the business. So whatever quality it is still able to produce in no way can be attributed to the free model. It comes in spite of it.
Rather, the paper and its declining journalistic and financial fortunes is a cautionary tale, a living example of the dangers of clinging to the mast of free. For more, read Ryan’s “The Washington Post Co.’s Self-Destructive Course,” a deconstruction of the Post’s free news strategy.
Put a third way, if Clay Shirky—Mr. Here Comes Everybody himself—says the Post, “should turn to their most loyal readers for income, via a digital subscription service of the sort the Times has implemented,” that should at least give free-news advocates pause. The Shirky case is nuanced, but there it is.
And, because HuffPo laudably does some great longform and investigations, that doesn’t mean that volume-based incentives of its free model don’t exist. It means it’s doing this work in spite of its model. As I said in my post, “
Low High-volume low-quality isn’t inevitable under the free structure, but the model’s incentives run in that direction.”
So, what is the quality argument for choosing it, particularly at a regional newspaper today?
(And Ken Doctor makes a detailed case that even the financial argument—forget the journalism argument—is dubious at best over the long term for Advance in New Orleans.)
Mathew now points to Talking Points Memo’s membership system as preferable to a paywall. I’d say that asking for money to pay for additional content seems like a paywall by another name. But even if it’s different, this is another vote against free news and for charging readers. Indeed, Josh Marshall says he needs to charge so the site can do in-depth work.
This is one of the big reasons we’re doing Prime. We’d love to publish those [long] pieces. And we know there are a lot of our core readers who’d love to read them. But the economics of our company is based on reports that get lots of readers. If we spend a month or two producing a 10k or 15k word mini-book and we put it up on TPM and a few thousand people read it, that’s a big problem for us. So Prime is about setting up a business model within our larger business model that allows us to do something like TPM Singles. We don’t want to not do those pieces just because they probably can’t generate the mass audience that will pay for them with display advertising.
Again, under the pay model, that makes sense.
I think Mathew has a fair point when he says that at newspapers, ads have traditionally carried the revenue load. It’s true, as he says, that “[f] or the most part, advertising has paid the freight for journalism for decades, just as it does online…” and that “…newspapers have always been driven in part by a desire for advertising revenue, even if they charged a small fee to readers.”
But that’s just it: it’s a new day. I’m suggesting the mix needs to change.
The details are beyond the scope of my argument today, but Brady is on the right track by at least pointing to actual examples of the Journal Registers’ work, allowing readers a chance to judge for themselves the merits of stories cited as the best. And he and others candidly concede, the websites of JRC are “subpar” but say they will get better.
Fair enough. (The only caveat I’d mention is that I’m not sure JRC management fully appreciates the disconnect between its boastful and aggressive rhetoric about its digital orientation—I’m not naming names, John Paton—and the actual digital product a company called Digital First produces. This isn’t to say, rush the fixes. It is to say, that Awl piece didn’t come out of nowhere.)
But this debate is bigger than that. As (name-drop alert) Walter Lippmann said in 1920: “It’s not enough for [journalists] to struggle against great odds, as many of them are now doing, wearing out their souls to do a particular assignment well. The philosophy of the work itself needs to be discussed. The news about the news needs to be told.”