Paywalls are a means, not an end

A Toronto Star columnist's belligerence gets me thinking

I like paywalls. I really do.

I think it makes sense for newspapers that saw the bottom drop out of print ad revenue to now ask readers to pick up a greater share of the cost of news. And it’s a win-win-win-(ok, -lose) deal, since paywalls haven’t cost papers much in the way of online traffic or digital ad revenue. In some cases, like at the Financial Times, they actually allow the paper to charge more for ads, sometimes substantially more, than free sites.

The biggest “win” for me is that paywalls create the right incentives for quality: Charging creates a revenue stream that makes good journalism possible, but it also imposes an obligation, an imperative even, to make the journalism good enough to motivate someone to actually pay for it. The free model, as I’ve argued, is a volume game that creates hamster-esque productivity incentives that are bad in theory and worse in practice. (The “lose” part is real, and starts with shifting cost burdens on already burdened readers.)

So, when the Toronto Star becomes the latest in a long line of newspapers all over the world to announce a digital subscription system, I’m good with it.

But, can we agree that a paywall is not an end in itself but only a means, and that the end is the ability to do great work, or rather, the great work itself? And that it’s great work that will ultimately create the value? What’s more, as implied above, isn’t it likely that if you don’t do great work, and do it often enough, then not enough people will subscribe and the means itself will slip away? In other words, what seems today like a comfy enclosed bunker with heating and ventilation and reserves of water, fuel, and food could actually turn out to be the Maginot Line.

Finally, paywalls seem to me to be more of a process than an actual solution in themselves; they’re a way to keep your newsroom intact for now—instead of losing faith in journalism altogether and pushing the panic button like Advance Publications is doing—while media’s transformation continues to shake out. As Ken Doctor points out, paywalls are emerging as a broader, constantly evolving effort to reset the relationship between news organizations and their reader/customers.

These thoughts occur to me while thinking about Rosie DiManno’s column from last week defending her paper’s decision to put up a paywall next year. Here’s a sample:

Listen, I get that trolls want their forage for free. I understand that whoever invented the Internet — and it wasn’t Al Gore, though he takes credit — envisioned a free-for-all repository of stuff, though perhaps the interactive function hadn’t been originally foreseen.

But it costs big bucks to put out a decent paper, even if we’re not the New York Times, as so many have snidely observed. Unlike the Globe and Mail, we’ve never pretended to be and thus should not suffer by comparison. The Star is a quality broadsheet — admittedly, not so broad anymore; again blame rising newsprint costs — that serves the city better than just about any newspaper on the continent….

We’ll hit the pause button there.

First, I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice.

Second, while I understand the comments function hasn’t turned out to be the Habermasian,18th-century-coffeehouse experience everyone hoped they’d be, still, I don’t think strafing visitors to your site is the way to go.

And third, you can’t just say, “hey, we’re quality.” This is one of those show-don’t-tell things. A few examples of quality stories, with links, would go a long way. For that matter, would any link at all kill you?

Fourth, there’s proud reference in there to being a “hard copy dinosaur.” This metaphor is always unhelpful. Dinosaurs couldn’t adapt, and print-trained people certainly can. It’s not that hard.

This bit here resonates with me, though:

We’ve kept the faith with readers despite dreadful economic convulsions. We’ve prudently managed to do more with less, staff streamlined via generous buyout packages, more resources poured into the online version of the paper, reporters multitasking to produce video, blog, tweet, while still filing the regular quota of stories. We’re all, in a way, radio reporters today, banging off copy for the web on quick turnaround deadlines, updating.

That’s the Hamster Wheel playing out in real life. The productivity imperatives imposed by digital logic and media disruption have fallen, more than anywhere, on working newsrooms to a degree that is not fully appreciated, except by, well, the Federal Communications Commission.

A paywall might be a means to slow the wheel a bit, especially if subscription revenue turns out to be more valuable than digital ads and the quality imperative takes hold. As Doctor says, under the paywall/membership system, “content counts more than ever.”

As I say, a paywall is not an end. It’s really a beginning, a chance for a new start. But it’s only a chance. Combativeness toward critics is okay; belligerence is probably not. There’s no template for being great. The Toronto Star will have to find its own way. But it starts with an attitude, and it’s the “We’ve kept the faith with readers” idea that will make the paywall work.

h/t Jay Rosen via Dan Gillmor.

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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. Tags: ,