Audit Notes: paying for news edition

NYT cuts would surely have been much worse without its paywall

The New York Times, after a weak third quarter, is cutting 30 senior editors positions. “Senior editor” can mean a lot of things, but one of them is “highly paid” (relatively speaking—this is journalism, after all), so the paper can get more savings from less buyouts.

Those reductions come on top of 30 buyouts in the ad department, the Times reports. But it’s worth noting again that things would be much worse were it not for the paper’s paywall. Digital subscriptions are bringing in roughly $100 million a year in new revenue, by my calculations, and they’re offsetting the continued collapse of print advertising.

If the Times had taken the advice of the “free” folks, these cuts would be much deeper.

And this is very interesting:

But the hiring The Times has done in recent years to help make it more competitive online has restored the newsroom to the same size it was in 2003 — about 1,150 people.

It was my impression that the newsroom was down about 10 percent from its peak, which was still a small reduction compared to everyone else in the industry.

That the Times has maintained its newsroom size during the worst period newspapers—or just about any other major industry—has experienced is remarkable.

— The Washington Post is preparing investors to walk back its paywall opposition. CEO Donald Graham, as reported by NetNewsCheck:

“We are obviously looking at paywalls of every type. But the reason we haven’t adopted one yet is that we haven’t found one that actually adds to profits,” Graham said. “But we are going to continue to study every model of paywall and think about that, as well as think about keeping it free.”

That second sentence makes no sense, of course. Just look around.

— Read John Zhu’s excellent post on the paywall dustup between The Audit and various other bloggers, which Mathew Ingram calls a “religious war.” Zhu takes on
one of my Five FON Straw Men—that paywalls dampen innovation, so let me quote at length:

If “paywalls kill innovation” was just another claim poorly supported by fact, I’d pay it little mind. However, the more insidious threat from this misnomer is that it equates paywalls with a return to the days when newspapers refused to embrace the need for change, the kind of days that many of the paywall opponents fought hard against (and should be commended for doing so), the kind of days that’s starting to pass due in no small part to financial necessity, the kind of days the people who fought the war for innovation never want to see return again. That, I think, is why we can’t have an intelligent discussion about paywalls as a business strategy right now. Too many people are still fighting old wars. When many of these people argue against paywalls, I get the distinct impression that they’re arguing against something much bigger.

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.

Yes. Read the whole thing.

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

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: , , , ,