David Simon is a talented writer and storyteller, but is he qualified to give advice to publishers about how to save their dying industry?
As qualified as anybody else, I suppose. But when he suggested in a recent piece for CJR that people like me who disagree with his position on paid content were unqualified, that got under my skin a bit. Simon wrote, “These folks (paywall opponents) don’t understand the first thing about actual journalism.” He also lumped us in with an imaginary crowd of people who supposedly think amateurs can replace professionals, though we take no such position.
To Simon’s credit, he engaged readers in comments on his CJR piece, but the conversation turned more into a quibble over the definition of ad hominem than a dialogue about the important issues facing newspapers.
I decided to step back and lay out my thoughts in a more organized fashion.
First, Simon and I agree: that journalism is important. That newspapers giving their content away for free online is a bad idea. That investigative/enterprise journalism is expensive. That the beat system plays an important role in watchdog journalism, and beat journalism requires paid professionals who are in it for the long haul.
That said, there are at least 10 arguments against paywalls.
The Times is unique. It isn’t a local paper. Even the New York news covered by the Times has more national gravitas than local flavor. The Times has a global audience, and as a truly outstanding journalistic institution it has some key advantages: Namely, it comes closer than most other outlets to producing journalism on a consistent basis that people will actually pay for; and it produces journalism that people all over the world will consistently link to. These are powerful forces for creating the kind of added value that might lead to paid subscriptions.
The Times takes advantage of these assets by keeping its paywall porous. Not only is it easily defeated, the Times rewards people who follow links from other sources by not counting those articles against the monthly quota (see comment #45 by Greg in the CJR conversation with Simon).
While Simon, near the end of the thread, notes some high-minded predictions about the potential growth of the Times paywall, he has not provided evidence that it will ever do what he claims a paywall can do: Support, on its own, New York Times journalism. By this standard, which Simon created himself, the Times paywall is an abject failure.
Simon believes that if his old paper, The Baltimore Sun (which once had, he says, 300,000 subscribers) went to an online-only, pay-to-play model, it would generate $3.6 million in revenue for the Sun, which he believes could sustain the Sun newsroom. In 2009, before a round of layoffs, the Sun had 148 editorial employees (elsewhere in comments Simon said the Sun once had a newsroom of 500 staffers). I can’t find payroll figures for the Sun, but total personnel costs had to be between $10 million and $15 million in 2009, so on that basis alone Simon’s math doesn’t make the grade, and that’s to maintain a newsroom that even Simon finds weak and emaciated.
A metro newsroom—the newsroom Simon is most concerned about protecting—needs between $50 million and $100 million to provide the kind of big, serious journalism Simon advocates. At $10 a month per subscription (Simon’s figure), the news site would need 416,000 subscribers to cover a $50 million editorial budget.
While in a city like Baltimore you could do that level of journalism, even enterprise/watchdog journalism, in an online-only way for $3.6 million, that isn’t what Simon is proposing. He wants “day-in, day-out comprehensive coverage of entire metro regions” (recent comment). In 2009, he wrote that the $3.6 million budget could provide a metro newsroom “that covers local politics, local culture, local sports, and financial news.” I don’t see how $3.6 million even begins to get that job done.
One of the best and smartest metro newspaper editors of the past couple of decades, John Robinson, has said newspaper paywalls are a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.
It’s an assessment backed by some hard facts.