Less time per piece is, of course, a recipe for lower-quality journalism—the kind people are always complaining about—and it is a logical, if not inevitable, result of the free model. Public-interest journalism is certainly possible under the free model, but, the trouble is, under the model, it also makes no sense. Why risk time and money on an investigation when its traffic potential is as uncertain as a blog post that took an hour? You might do it anyway, as Huffington Post does, for instance. Salon, among others, has worked to make fewer go farther.
LowHigh-volume low-quality isn’t inevitable under the free structure, but the model’s incentives run in that direction.
So that’s a public-interest argument against the JRC/Advance model, whether it works financially or not.
Put up a paywall, though, and the logic changes. When The New York Times Company put up its paywall last year, amidst much derision, that was a “dramatic and difficult” decision and yet not “bloody” at all. Go figure. Besides being a big success, it also created what could be called a “quality imperative:” The new revenue stream could be used to help maintain quality but at the same time, the paper had to produce journalism that justified someone actually pulling out their credit card to pay for it.
Indeed, a digital subscription, as opposed to a print subscription, is even more of a mini-referendum on quality. The old print model was bundled together—movie listings, grocery store coupons, classifieds, local news—so it was hard to tell why people bought the paper. Under the digital subscription model, chances are it’s for the journalism.
And of course, what was dismissed as a one-off, premium/national paper story is now fast becoming an industry standard. Will it save the day? Wrong question. The real issue was always whether it would crash digital ad revenue, and the answer is no.
Now, of course, as Tim McGuire wisely reminds us, the paywall question is complicated. People will chose or not choose to pay for a subscription for a lot of reasons. And, let’s face it, the free model has to say for itself journalistically, particularly in the idea of turning local news organizations into great digital gathering places for local communities—a public sphere for the 21st century. It’s a longer conversation, but,IMO, newsgathering has to come first. Putting up a paywall doesn’t mean you’ll be good, but it is an incentive for making the journalism itself worth paying for.
Or as the much admired digital thinker Martin Nisenholtz himself puts it: “Once you start to actually charge people for the stuff that you do, that’s when you know whether you have customers.”
Amen, brother Martin.
So one wing of the industry—eschewing buzzwords and voice-of-God pronouncements—is adding revenue via digital subscriptions and stringing out print income as long as possible. As Chittum says, it’s not sexy, but, crucially, the strategy enables, and indeed requires, news organizations to preserve news-gathering assets as long as is practical while the technology and finances of the news business complete their radical transformation, which is still in its early stages. These newsroom assets have already been trimmed and may need to be cut again. But the muddle-through model delays the moment and may, just may, obviate it.
And just to be clear: Preserving newsroom assets is not a form of cowardice, just as cutting them is not a form of courage. It really depends, and right now, it looks like the opposite is true.
The Advance case shows a second implication of free online news.
We are in the midst of a digital revolution and instead of constantly being disrupted by our numerous online competitors, we decided to re-invent ourselves. It is useless to bemoan the digital revolution and the unintended consequences that have come along with it; the trick is to turn that trend to the advantage of our papers, our readers, and our communities. This is a difficult task, and it is the one we are deeply engaged in.
In Michigan, this led to what amounts to a scorched-earth policy for Advance’s news gathering assets: Last November, it confirmed it laid off nearly half (550) of its 1,200 employees. About half those layoffs were later offset with the new hires. But the cuts, nonetheless, are real and substantial.
In New Orleans and across its Alabama properties, the cuts were similarly dramatic.
Now, the way Advance went about this was ham-fisted and needlessly obfuscated with digital hoo-hah slathered with a layer of sentimentalist goo about Hurricane Katrina and the good old days in Biloxi.
But these, one assumes, are staffing levels appropriate for this particular model. Advance has done the math, and this is what the free online model pays for.