The New York Times has a mission too, and it has about 25 million unique visitors a month. Nearly 98 percent of them are not digital subscribers. That’s the point of the leaky paywall, which as with other anti-paywallites, Lacy appears to totally not comprehend: You can charge your core readers while allowing casual readers to visit your site up to X times a month. In that way the Times has preserved all or almost all of its digital ad revenue while bringing in $100 million in new subscription money. This is a no-brainer.
The meter model also means the modern paywall doesn’t preclude further non-subscription innovation.

4— “Subscriptions were never meant to be major revenue drivers in the old world either.”

This is the old Readers Never Paid for News catechism, one of the core beliefs of the FONsters. It’s a particularly nonsensical idea based on the false notion that readers have always thought they were paying for the fishwrap rather than for the news and content printed on it. Lacy writes, “for most newspapers, the cost of a subscription merely paid for the logistics associated with getting a piece of dead tree to your door.”

To which I would say: Money is fungible. You could just as easily say that advertisers paid for the non-editorial stuff and readers paid for the news. You’d be wrong there, too.

Also, because subscriptions were a smaller part of revenue in the past does not mean that’s where they have to stay. And print price increases should be part of that equation, by the way, along with smart hybrid strategies like Sunday paper subscriptions that get readers free or reduced-cost digital access.

5— “If an offline publication can’t sustain $60 million in losses without a paywall, maybe the costs are the problem.”

Ah. Here’s where we get to the nut of the issue, the logic of “free” that’s usually not spelled out quite so forthrightly:

The CJR’s biggest reason the Post needs a paywall is because its losses are unsustainable. Duh. On this we agree. The entire model of news has changed. But the answer isn’t trying to prop up unsustainable old world costs by charging readers more money. It’s retooling the business dramatically. I’m sorry if that means layoffs. But there are 500 people in the Post’s newsroom. You can’t tell me there is no fat to be trimmed.

The news staff is too big for our theory! The news staff must be cut!

What we have here—how does that go?—is a “breathtaking view” of how the new media world thinks.

These folks love newspapers to death.

This is what we are against. We vehemently disagree with glib assertions that because digital ads aren’t bringing in enough revenue, that somehow proves that the newsroom is too big. The Post’s newsroom is already approaching half of its peak size. Yes, it would be profitable—for a short time—if it fired another 300 journalists. It would also not be worth reading, and its eviscerated news report would be a huge loss for the D.C. area and for the country as a whole.

But Lacy is hardly alone on the arguing-with-straw front. Mathew Ingram’s in on it too (as is Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin). He says “this focus on a paywall as a magic solution misses the point.”

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.”

Ingram also is incorrect to say that “Starkman also dismisses the idea that there is any value in the digital-first approach.”

Wrong again. The point is just that argument without evidence is just guruspeak. Here’s what Dean actually wrote (emphasis mine):

To say, in the absence of supporting data, that the answer for the Post is to “commit” to an anti-paywall strategy, to “push the innovation meter to 11,” and make “digital first a core mandate” is to say nothing at all. There is nothing in the PostCo.’s publicly released data to support that case. At some point, belief has to yield to evidence. Even Clay Shirky, who needs no one to vouch for his network-theory cred, has recognized the obvious in the case of the Post.

“Digital First,” in the sense of refusing to charge newspaper readers for a subscription, is bankrupt, both literally in the case of the main unit of the so-named American newspaper company, and, in the wider sense, as a strategy for newspapers generally.

If the free strategy can work, fine. But bring some numbers to the argument.

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.