Audit Notes: paywall time machine, Times-Picayune, Elizabeth Warren

What digital subscriptions could have done for newspapers a decade ago

Ken Doctor writes a fantastic piece for Nieman Lab on charging for news. He notes that leaky paywalls are working and wonders whether erecting them years ago would have helped prevent the gutting of the industry:

Publishers early on rejected reader payment in the digital age. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times paywalls? Well, that’s not the news, it’s business news, publishers told each other, and besides the FT’s both British and, for God’s sake, printed in on salmon-pink paper. What stands out most is how little testing of a general news pay model we saw.

Only a handful, most prominently Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman (just lauded by Warren Buffett) offered this heresy: Why would I give away a product on the web that I am asking people in the community to pay a couple of hundred dollars a year for? In retrospect, Hussman only had part of the answer. His contrariness did stem his papers’ circulation losses, because the paper only put a part of its daily print report online. His papers may not have been able to greatly grow circulation revenues, and they experienced a tougher time getting the digital ad business going — but that simple-minded thought for which he was ridiculed is now the root of the reader-revenue revolution.

Amen to all that. Hussman has long been correct, but we’re still debunking the dated nonsense of the free crowd.

Read the whole thing.

— Former Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid, writing at Forbes, responds to my story on the New Orleans paper:

The second question is, what is the owners’ strategy, and will it provide the minimal stability to see if this can work, journalistically?

Most newspaper innovation makes a nod to the traditions of journalism, placing news coverage at the center, in whatever form. The basic idea in New Orleans, and in other cities where Advance is imposing this new model, seems focused less around journalism than around new media models such as Reddit and, which depend on hitting some viral sweet spot between content and communities to create traffic and with it, money. That’s one reason sports and entertainment coverage get more resources at|The Times-Picayune, and news fewer, according to Chittum’s account. (Let’s be frank, though: quality local journalism was always sort of a side-benefit of the newspaper business, which was - once - built on selling advertising space, not school board coverage.)…

On the other hand, given the amount of effort and money put into the changes, there does seem to be some company skin, and ego, in this game. I think Advance wants to succeed. The question is what cost to journalism will success (if it’s eventually achieved) exact?

I’d just say that Advance has upped its profit margins big time by slashing the newsroom and print production, and the minimal investments it has made (mainly a new newsroom and a marketing campaign) surely pale next to the money it’s now pulling out of New Orleans.

As New York reported back in May 2009: “No one in the family believes the newspaper business is coming back.”

— Whoever thought Senate Banking Committee hearings would become must-see TV (or must-see YouTube, anyway)?

Elizabeth Warren has made a quick impact on the committee, grilling regulators about why they pussyfoot around criminal banks that are too big to fail. Here she is asking what it would take for a bank like HSBC, which copped to laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for drug lords and running roughshod over regulators who told them to quit doing it:


“If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life,” an exasperated Warren said, as she wrapped up her questioning. “But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night — every single individual associated with this — and I just think that’s fundamentally wrong.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,