Audit Notes: sustainable newsrooms edition

More thoughts on digital subscriptions at the Washington Post and elsewhere

Jeff Bercovici asks if the The Washington Post waited too long to install its paywall since its revenue losses, unsupplemented by digital subscriptions, led to severe staff cuts that without doubt have hurt the paper’s quality.

If you’re wondering, the Washington Post Company reported that it had about 535 “full-time editors, producers, reporters, photographers and videographers” as of the end of last year, according to its last 10-K, but that includes Slate and other properties.

The paper alone had 675 journalists as of year-end 2005 (it later changed the way it disclosed this). It had about the same in 1999, aka “back in the day.” So it’s down significantly, but far from out. Really, this decision comes just in time and so much better sooner than later.

A couple more thoughts:

First, the Post is a bit of an odd duck, in that circulation-wise it’s a classic metro daily, like the Boston Globe, but its digital audience is global, as are many of its coverage areas (national security, the IMF, the State Department etc.). So it must bear some of the costs of a national paper without benefit of the national print ads that help support the New York Times.
Whether this means out-of-town readers will be seen as a source of subscribers or (speculating) remain as a source of traffic and be allowed on for free depending on location, or some third idea, this will have to be a custom-designed wall. No cookie cutters here.

Second, one of the remarkable things about the Times‘s successful wall is not just how it helped support the paper financially, but how it buoyed morale both at the paper and across the newspaper business and, for that matter, through many, though not all, sectors of professional journalism. Here’s hoping the Post benefits as well.

And if you’re worried that paywalls will somehow lead to newspaper complacency, read John Zhu, who is on the money:

That blurring of the distinction between paywalls as a strategy and paywalls as a symbol is bad, bad, bad. If not for it, I think (or at least dare to hope) intelligent, well-educated, experienced journalists and journalism observers would be less prone to fallacies like deriding the New York Times’ paywall as “barely keeping pace with the decline in print revenues” while remaining unskeptical apologists for another strategy that couldn’t keep its practitioner out of bankruptcy. Really, guys? Really? C’mon, we deserve better media criticism than this.

I think the days when most newspapers still think they can go on with business as usual are long gone. They know they need new revenue streams. Paywalls are one such potential stream, and it needs to be viewed and evaluated as such, rather than as an embodiment of past failings. Ingram suggests that we should be able to have a discussion about paywalls without having it turn into a religious war. For that to happen, we need to first leave behind the battles of yesteryear. Otherwise every one of these discussions will just end up being a bout of PTSD.

As stated many times, this is mostly about preserving newsrooms, the main asset, now, while the transformation continues to unfold.

—The Economist does a roundup of the paywall news, and, to my ear, strikes a tone that’s a bit overly optimistic even for me.

Some newspaper stocks already reflect this good news. Over the past six months the New York Times Company’s share price has risen by 37%. Those of Gannett and McClatchy, two other big publishers, have climbed by 34% and 24% respectively (although part of Gannett’s gain is attributable to its television unit, which was boosted by America’s election campaign)

I know it’s not the writer’s point, but honestly, while I wouldn’t sell a newspaper stock (and I don’t own any, natch), I certainly can’t see an argument for buying one.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has the line of the day (my emphasis), referring to the NYT’s failed attempt to put its columnists behind a wall in mid-’00s:

I read the Post online enough to say that I would pay for this. Plus I’ve basically come around to the idea that content-providers will have to charge something. But putting yourself on the market cuts both ways, in that it rather quickly reveals what, precisely, consumers will pay for and what they won’t. The Times found that opinions were as numerous as middle fingers, and thus couldn’t really monetize it’s columnists. It’s reporting turned out to be another story.

—David Carr hops on the paywall bandwagon:

It’s been a weird evolution to watch. Pay walls, long the bĂȘte noir of evangelists of a free and open Internet, are almost sexy right now.

Welcome aboard, David! A serious suggestion: It may be time to revisit the Advance story.

(Update: To give credit where it’s due, David *did* write a nifty defense of the Times own paywall against some familiar critics.)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.