Make your paper as indispensable as you can make it, grab the subscribers you can grab, and let the rest browse fifteen stories a month. If your core readers don’t think you’re worth anything, you’re probably not worth anything.

7. “The barrier to entry for producing local news is quite low in the Digital Age.”

As a cautionary tale, Owens points to a paywall failure from four years ago at the Watertown Daily Times. That paper erected a paywall in 2000 and pulled it down in 2008 after a local news aggregator grabbed Web share. What Owens doesn’t say is that Watertown’s was a relatively prehistoric paywall—the all-or-nothing type—and that the paper’s own managing editor said last year that “A subscription (paywall) website is going to have to happen.”

But that miss is fitting since Owens gives little evidence of understanding the point of the leaky paywall system, which is about getting your core readers to pay you money directly while monetizing casual readers via advertising.

8. “The wrong people are pushing paywalls.”

Most of the paywall advocates I see and read around the Web are the same people in the late 1990s who proclaimed the Web to be a fad. They’re the same people who throughout my online newspaper career didn’t want to break news online, didn’t want to carry a video camera, didn’t want to feature current local news on the homepage, didn’t want to engage with online readers—they pretty much either worked actively or passively to sabotage every attempt at online innovation.

This is bogus. Of course, some of the people in the pro-paywall camp are bean counters. Hey, it takes beans to make chili (unless you’re from Texas, where I was born. But I digress). If you hadn’t noticed, there aren’t many beans left to count. We could use a few.

Certainly, a good number of newspaper owners are just liquidating their properties, as Jack Shafer writes. They’re generally the ones who never invested much in journalism anyway.

I could care less about the shareholders of The New York Times and Washington Post companies. I suspect that the long-term survival of the NYT and other newspapers could necessitate a bankruptcy restructuring, and that wouldn’t be all bad. I’m more concerned about the Times-Picayune and the Los Angeles Times (which, contra Simon, does have a paywall), say, than I am with the random Gannett profit harvester. What’s the point of saving something that’s not worth saving?

And anyway, at this point, the anti-paywall folks are the old guard, as Owens calls pro-paywall people. The free thing has been tried. It hasn’t worked. Let’s try something different.

9. “Paywalls don’t address the fundamental issues facing newspapers.”

The fallacy here is that paywalls prevent newspapers from addressing their fundamental issues. They don’t. They give them a bit more money to address them.

10. “Paywalls continue the history of newspapers avoiding meaningful innovation.”

Of course, newspapers successfully charging their readers for news online is the very definition of a meaningful innovation.

I’m all for doing whatever you can to bring in money to support a robust news operation, and the leaky paywall doesn’t and shouldn’t preclude further innovation. If Owens has any better ideas, perhaps he’d like to share them.

Here’s the bottom line: Does a paywall bring in more subscription revenue than it loses in advertising revenue? If it does—and we’ve seen that they can and do—why are we still talking about this?


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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.