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.”

And the news about the free news model is not good; its flawed logic is catching up with it. Every day it seems some different organization is reversing the panicky decisions made a decade ago and trying to figure out a way to get readers to contribute more for their news.

Now, it’s the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. As Doctor, an honest broker in this debate if there ever was one, says:

Circulation has turned from a means (getting ad-rich papers to shoppers) to an end unto itself, actually getting readers to pay a significant share of the journalism costs. It’s a simple proposition: You ask the people who really value you and your journalism to pay you more. Surprisingly to some, it looks like many of us are willing to. Why didn’t we think of this earlier, before the carnage of cuts overwhelmed the profession? Call it a brew of misunderstanding the digital transition, of timidity, of Steve Jobs’ iRevolutions…and of desperation.

Why didn’t we think of this earlier? FON-y you should ask.

I’m sure there actually is a serious case to be made that free and quality can run in harmony, rather than at odds. But that case would have to take into account metrics other than click volume—perhaps it’s increased time spent on the site, or goodwill, or something else that would provide publishers with some pricing power over ad rates. Maybe it helps with conferencing revenues, for all I know. Ingram doesn’t make that case. If someone else has, I’d like to see it. And what’s more, I’d be happy to see it.

It’s not about the model itself, but what the model produces and what it is designed to produce.

I say the free news model is designed to produce volume. Who wants to seriously argue otherwise?

If all this were an academic parlor game, that would be one thing. But there’s a journalistic train wreck going on right now in New Orleans and in Alabama that directly attributable to the free digital model. Just last week, a reporter I know has, like other great reporters, turned down an offer to stay at the Times-Picayune under its new, free-centric configuration. The reporters know; they’re voting with their feet.

And did I mention Advance owns the Plain Dealer, the Star-Ledger, and The Oregonian?

It’s easy for us up here to advocate one model or another.

It’s the reporters, and the public, that have to live with it. Until there’s a quality argument for the free model, newspapers should avoid it.


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.