In 1944, Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese Army to the remote Philippine Island of Lubang with instructions to never surrender to the Allies and to fight to the death.
“We’ll come back for you,” his commander wrote. “But until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that is the case, live on coconuts!”
At this point, the people opposing subscription models for American newspapers and advocating for them to be supported by digital ads (and unproven innovations somewhere in the future) are living on coconuts.
The war is over. The evidence is in. Newspapers, large and small, premium and not, gain additional revenue through subscriptions and lose little if anything in digital ads (UPDATED this sentence to add links to more evidence, since Digital First’s Jim Brady doesn’t like my Press+ link in the previous sentence.)
The Allies have won.
Dean Starkman, my boss and co-religionist, argued Monday that the Washington Post needs a paywall, and stat. We’ve been arguing this in one form or another for years now.
And in the years we’ve been arguing this point, the industry has moved our way, along with the evidence that digital subscriptions can work.
But there’s still an anti-paywall camp, and all too often its arguments are stuck in in the mid-2000s, ignoring events of the last few years.
Jeff Jarvis tweeted in response to Dean’s post: “CJR continues its monomaniacal crusade for pay walls. I want to psychoanalyze that.”
Alternatively, one could psychoanalyze sticking to the same digital ad strategy year after year after year and expecting a different result…
All while your print revenue does this:
Savvy! But that’s a consultant’s-eye view.
Other true believers resort to the old straw man strategy. And when you create your own opponent out of thin air, you’re guaranteed to win—every time!
Take Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily, who thinks Dean’s argument is “flawed and reactionary” and “a breathtaking view of how the old media world still thinks.” Maybe so. But to get there she has to misrepresent the argument in major ways. It’s a lot easier to win an argument when you’re arguing against a cartoon of your own creation.
Let’s take the straw men on one by one:
1— “Chairman Don Graham is not a Luddite, and he’s not stupid.”
But of course no one says that or even believes it. Believe it or not, you can think someone has the wrong strategy without thinking they’re an idiot.
2— “Unlike a lot of newspapers, the Post trying to do something innovative, rather than just take the easy out of throwing up a paywall.”
“Innovative” in this instance means unethically spamming Facebook friends with Post content. Lacy talks about the Social Reader’s “ups and downs,” which is quite the euphemism. The Post’s app had about 600,000 users a day back in April. Then Graham pal Mark Zuckerberg tweaked Facebook’s settings. Now the Post’s app gets 20,000 users, according to AppData—a 97 percent collapse in seven months.
It’s not that Social Reader wasn’t a worthy innovation (ethical considerations aside). It’s just that it didn’t amount to anything. And the Post is hardly the only newspaper experimenting. The New York Times leaky paywall is an innovation, and it is paying off to the tune of $100 million a year and is still growing fast.
Does “innovation” have to mean “makes no money”?
If you still don’t think that counts as an experiment, visit NYT Labs, described by guess who as “innovating the way they deliver the news.”
But see the NYT doesn’t count, really (emphasis mine), according to Lacy: “The New York Times own paywall revenues are barely keeping up with the fall in print revenues, and the Times has done it better than anyone.”
So, they’re only “barely” keeping up with the fall in print revenue.
That’s like saying, the patient is only sitting up and eating, not running marathons yet. Definitely, we should go back to incense and bleeding therapy.
And how is that WaPo Social Reader revenue doing?
But, good point. What is mere evidence in the face of deeply held beliefs? Just ask the GOP.
3— “The Post still has a sense of mission… Part of that sense of mission, I would imagine, is making news accessible for the public and finding a sustainable way to be part of journalism’s future, even if that’s the harder road to take.”