Thanks to Clay Shirky for responding to my piece on the financialization of the Washington Post Company, which during the financial crisis has handed more than a billion dollars back to shareholders via dividends and share buybacks while its newspaper crumbles. I’ve got a couple of thoughts in response.
First, it’s seriously good news to see an Internet thinker like Shirky endorse a paywall, which in its current formulation brings in subscription money from core readers while allowing occasional visitors to read without charge. He writes that the Post “should turn to their most loyal readers for income, via a digital subscription service of the sort the Times has implemented.”
The significance of a longtime pay skeptic of Shirky’s prominence crossing over shouldn’t be underestimated. Removing the intellectual justifications for not charging makes it that much more difficult for executives at the Post and, say, The Guardian—much less management-consultant types like Jeff Jarvis—to hold out.
Unfortunately, the industry’s move toward charging online comes at least a decade too late. Newspapers have foregone billions of dollars in subscription revenue buying into the false hope that Web ads would someday pay the bills. And they did so in large part because the industry didn’t innovate quickly enough. Before The Wall Street Journal started letting news leak out from its subscription site half a decade ago, a paywall was an all-or-nothing proposition. The WSJ showed you could hold onto your subscribers while getting links from Digg and Drudge and, later, Google. The Financial Times’s meter model improved on the WSJ’s innovation, and the NYT has since improved on the FT’s.
Digital subscription revenue is no panacea for newspapers, though. It’s something of a parachute slowing their fall: It won’t return newspapers to their peak form, but it could help them land safely. At some point relatively soon, ads will have fallen so far that they have no farther to go and the print paper will disappear . Digital subscriptions will be a second major revenue stream—one that could rival what digital ads bring in.
Shirky’s main contention with my piece is that I don’t acknowledge that profits and great journalism are basically becoming mutually exclusive:
If, as a citizen, he wants investment in journalism, then he doesn’t want more capitalism from owners, especially not the swashbuckling kind. If, as a shareholder, he wants more profit, then the last thing he wants the Washington Post Company to do is spend more on the newsroom. Chittum comes so close to arriving at the obvious conclusion—in its current configuration, the Post is basically screwed—then doesn’t follow his own logic all the way through. If he did, the animating theme of his piece—blame management—would be harder to support.
But I have long come to that conclusion, at least as far as the industry is currently configured, and I wasn’t minimizing the deep structural problems facing nearly all newspapers. That’s implicit in my discussion of the Post’s dismal performance—the “losses in thirteen of the last fifteen quarters” and the “trail of red ink that has led to cumulative losses of $412 million over the period,” to quote from my fifth paragraph.
Maybe I should have made it explicit. So here goes: As is, the Post is screwed. It will need to make radical changes to get to 2022 as anything worth caring about.
Those changes will include stopping the printing presses, perhaps except on Sunday, and transitioning to an all-digital platform that relies on subscriptions for a significant portion of its revenues. It will also require the Post Company to stop forking out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to shareholders and to invest at least some of that money in its news operations.
That brings me to where where we fundamentally differ: I don’t accept the premise—not yet—that great journalism and profits are now all but incompatible. I don’t believe that “investing in the Post would be money down a rathole,” as Shirky says I do. I believe it could be, but that’s a critical distinction. I also believe investing money in, say, Facebook could be sinking money down a rathole. But you know what? I don’t own the thing. If I owned a company, much less a critical institution like the Post, I would invest in it or sell it to someone who would. No single investment is a sure thing and newspaper investments these days are riskier than most. The truth is, we just don’t know what the Post Company could have done by investing part of the $1.1 billion it’s handed shareholders in the last four years. But we do know where it is now.