Followers of the hot ‘n heavy paywall debate—all seven of you—may find it hard to believe, but there’s plenty of room for consensus on whether digital subscriptions are good, bad, or indifferent for news.

But we’re not there yet.

Digital First’s Steve Buttry was irritated by my use of metaphors in my last post, where I, for instance, compared people who still argue that paywalls don’t work, indeed can’t work, to Japanese soldiers holed up on islands refusing to believe the war is over. Actually, it didn’t go far enough: It’s more like Lt. Onoda getting the orders from Major Taniguchi but fighting on.

But seriously, metaphors are more or less what’s left when free-news advocates, losing on the facts, rely instead on junk argumentation. To wit: Crudely misrepresenting others’ arguments and ignoring evidence.

See, this is what got the GOP in trouble.

Buttry and folks like Mathew Ingram have been flat wrong about this topic for years and can’t bring themselves to admit it the simple fact that (modern) paywalls have demonstrated they can help newspapers and have not been shown to hurt them. Simple? Apparently not.

As we’ve said before, even famed digital advocate Clay Shirky has has shown flexibility in the face of overwhelming evidence. And a constructive step it was.

But Buttry would much prefer to argue against anything else. Says he:

I am willing to say that anyone who thinks the matter of whether paywalls will help news organizations find a prosperous future is settled is completely lacking in credibility. Specifically, the paywall cheerleading by Ryan Chittum and Dean Starkman of CJR is mystifyingly lacking of thoughtful analysis and skepticism.

But in fact, he’s really arguing against “Ryan Chittum and “Dean Starkman,” who are, indeed, much easier to defeat!

The thing about blogging about someone else’s post is, in order to not look foolish you have to actually read their post first, particularly when that post calls out the very straw men you’re trotting out again. I have never said that paywalls will lead to a prosperous future. I have said they are a new revenue stream that can help slow or in some cases stop the losses that are enervating newspapers.

As I said in the post he was responding to (and in the part explicitly addressed to him!):

One more time: A paywall is not a magic solution. It is not a panacea, Steve Buttry, and we’ve never said or implied that it is. Nothing is, least of all gauzy exhortations to “innovate.”

The guy just can’t help himself.

Here we find Buttry again refracting the issues I raised through a fun house mirror (emphasis mine):

Even if you take the most positive view of paywalls’ performance so far, we are a long way, measured in years, from establishing them as an important revenue source for healthy, growing media companies.

No kidding. We’re talking about stanching the bleeding right now. We’ll talk about growth once the losses have stabilized. In the third quarter, Gannett’s new meters almost offset its steep print-ad decline and they are projected to increase subscription revenue by 25 percent next year, along with $100 million of operating profit, which is pretty “important.” If Gannett, with its poor newspapers can do it, perhaps even Journal Register could.

And then there’s this:

Even if they start providing a consistent, significant revenue source, they will always be subject to disruption and competitive challenges. This is the silliest thing about Chittum’s war analogy: The Allies did win World War II. The digital marketplace is not a war media companies can win by dropping a new kind of bomb (I added that to Chittum’s metaphor, but subscriptions certainly wouldn’t fit there). The digital marketplace is a continual competitive struggle, where today’s victory becomes tomorrow’s vulnerability.

But no one argues that, natch. It’s not exactly a deep insight to say that companies that have adapted once will have to continue adapting.


Chittum and Starkman delight in the reported “$100 million” in revenue delivered by the New York Times paywall, as though that proves that paywalls are a successful digital business strategy for newspapers.

Yes, we delight in the $100 million I’ve estimated the Times paywall is bringing in. You’d think someone who “genuinely hope paywalls are successful” would too. But no, according to Buttry, we can’t learn any lessons from the NYT, whose success “is meaningless (for other papers) on at least four levels”:

It’s the New York Times. Nothing that it does extrapolates to other news organizations.

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.