Just a couple of years ago, although it feels like a lot longer, the media world was embroiled in something like a gigantic family argument over the idea of whether it was good idea to charge readers for news online. Among aficionados, this was known as the “paywall debate.”
The angry fracas was part of a much larger argument about the future of news itself. On one side, a new generation of technology-centered journalists trumpeted a new, decentered news system of networks, news shared and even gathered by volunteers, a more, informal, “iterative,” approach (posting news now and fixing mistakes along the way), less concern about separating business and editorial functions, and, of course, free online news for all. The other side, my side, which resisted the name “old guard,” argued about the importance of news institutions and professional newsgathering, traditional standards (or many of them), longform storytelling, reporter impartiality, strict separation of the news “church” and the business-side “state,” and paywalls. (One thing we old guarders did not insist on, by the way, was the survival of print.)
When I wrote critically about what I called the “future of news (FON) consensus” in the CJR in the fall of 2011, the technologists’ views were in ascendance and predicting, if not hastening, the death of newspapers. The intra-journalism debate that has unfurled over the last couple years has been heated and often angry, sometimes surprisingly enlightening, sometimes deeply stupid.
But now, it shows signs of abating. I see a consensus taking hold, one that, all in all, is much, much healthier for public-interest reporting than the old one. Is this inside media baseball? Most definitely! But the reality is that such debates can have an alarmingly large impact on the actual news the public will get. They matter. What was damaging about the old consensus, particularly, was its fealty to the god of clicks—digital ads revenue generated by high traffic volumes, which, in turn, require high quantities of new posts, often of indifferent quality. This side also believed that newspapers, under no circumstances, should charge readers for news online. This created what I called the “Hamster Wheel” effect in American newsrooms, speed for speed’s sake, volume without thought, and a downward quality spiral of local news. The problem with the free-content model isn’t that longform investigations and accountability reporting isn’t possible. It’s that its incentives run in the opposite direction. It is now generally understood that this belief has had disastrous effects on the newspaper industry, the backbone of American journalism (albeit an increasingly frail one), and is still doing damage in some quarters.
I’m speaking for myself here, not as the voice of CJR. But here’s what I see as the new FON consensus, or perhaps better, the Present of News (PON) consensus, since this looks like not so much as where we’re going as where we are:
Consensus #1: Free online news is a poor fit for legacy news organizations. Basically, the paywall side, the old guard, won this one. The New York Times digital subscription breakthrough in 2011 was initially dismissed as a unique case (just as the digital subscription success of The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times was similarly dismissed a few years earlier. But that argument has eroded as digital subscription meters have gone up successfully around the world. That variants of the model have been adopted by digitally native sites like Andrew Sullivan’s, Politico, and even Capital New York further illustrates that paywalls have turned some kind of corner. Determined attempts by Advance Publications, controlled by the Newhouse family, to shoehorn once-great news organizations like the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Cleveland Plain Dealer, into the free-ad model have gone sideways, providing a grisly counter-example. And mostly, it’s the realization both that newspapers’ digital ad growth, the great hope of free news, has hugely disappointed, and that Times-style metered subscription systems have shown they don’t even hurt digital traffic much anyway. You can both subscriptions and keep your traffic, and whatever you can earn from ads. Digital subscriptions, properly deployed, are free money.
Consensus #2: Paywalls are just a tool, not a panacea, a straw man we’ve had to argue against for years. While paywall revenue is often meaningful, and at places like the Times and the FT, it has actually helped offset perilous declines in print ad revenue, at most places it is a helpful revenue stream that is not enough to offset total revenue declines, which set the stage for a downward spiral of newsroom cuts and quality deterioration.