The fact that paywalls are porous will only make the job of acquisition and retention that much more expensive.
Simon is dismissive of the notion that the journalism itself has always been essentially free, writing: “But ‘readers never paid for the news’ is simply and utterly wrong. Until the Internet, they always paid for news. And pay for it they did, sometimes at a newsstand, sometimes on Sundays, sometimes weekly. But we all paid.”
As for who paid what for print news, in a survey last year, 85 percent of newspaper subscribers said they bought the paper for local news. That means 15 percent of the buyers didn’t care about local news. In the same survey, 67 percent said they wanted coupons in their newspaper, meaning for some percentage of people local news isn’t enough. Obituaries—not exactly the kind of high-end journalism Simon champions—is also another big reason people subscribe to a newspaper. Then there are sports, classifieds (always a big driver of readership), and Dear Abby (or the ilk).
A newspaper has always been a package, and that’s how it derived its economic value. If all a newspaper has is local news, it might woo droves of readers, but arguably not enough to make the newspaper profitable able to pay professional salaries to a lot of professional staff.
Paywall schemes disaggregate content and remove it from its traditional package. That diminishes the value of the subscription.
The need for a bundle to enhance the value of the subscription is a problem for paywall advocates. The financial truth of the matter is that a paywall reduces the subscription exchange to a single, discreet asset: news stories. There is just no evidence in the history of American journalism that a critical mass of readers will pay a substantial fee for just news articles.
As one of my heroes, Walter Lippman, pointed out in 1920, “Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper.”
Simon counters that times have changed. “Did you really mean to suggest,” he wrote to in our discussion in comments, “that Lippmann, speaking of the American public nine decades ago—with its lower rates of literacy, basic education, college experience, urbanity, discretionary income—had a clue about anything current when he declared that people won’t pay for news?”
Yes, times have changed. Unfortunately, for Simon’s position, human nature hasn’t.
It’s been pointed out by numerous people in numerous venues—including during the discussion with Simon on CJR.org—that the rate of subscription for newspapers barely covers the cost of printing and distribution. It does nothing to help defray the cost of newsgathering. That comes from advertising.
Which brings us back to a previous point: While online-only eliminates the cost of printing and distribution, quality journalism is still expensive. So far there is no evidence—either from empirical data or penciled-out math—to suggest online-only subscriptions will ever come close to paying for the kind of journalism Simon frets over losing.
It’s not just the comics, coupons, and movie listings that help subsidize serious journalism in metro newspapers. It’s also the police blotter, the run-of-the-mill city council report, the light feature about the old ladies’ sewing circle, and the list of new Eagle Scouts. All of these bits and pieces of journalism that serious journalists sneer at are a big reason why those 85 percent of readers who buy a paper for local news buy a newspaper in the first place.
They also want the accidents and petty scandals and courthouse dramas.
Investigative stories, enterprise pieces, lengthy features, and in-depth analyses are expensive and not the only reasons lots of people consume of local news.