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.

6. There are numerous free alternatives in every metro market for news, which will greatly reduce the adoption and retention rate of paid digital subscribers.

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.

And when you remove the expensive stuff from the equation, the rest is very cheap to produce. And in any metro market, it’s plentiful from a variety of sources.
In our conversation, I mentioned one such source of inexpensive news: TV news. David Simon immediately belittled TV news, as any diehard print journalist would.
Outside of the fact that his position is insulting to a lot of good broadcast journalists, it totally misses the point of discussing competition from free TV websites.

Then you contend that there are websites in metro areas that approximate the reach and depth of print journalism, and you actually cite TV news sites. I’ve read those sites. Been reading them for years in a variety of metro regions. Mr. Owens, please. Fully 75 percent of their content is AP- or Reuters-fed regurgitations of WHAT WAS PRINTED IN THE METRO DAILY a news cycle earlier and now has been aggregated and synthesized by wire services.

Which prompted me to visit the first TV station website I found in Simon’s beloved Baltimore, which turned out to be WBAL. Of the 10 local news stories I checked, 10 were original reporting by WBAL staff.

In my experience that level of news coverage is common. In a metro market, take three to five good-enough TV news stations (especially if one of them is better than just good), and the intelligent news consumer has options for free news.

And while a metro newspaper might lock away its best stuff behind a paywall, and getting the scoop is nice, there’s nothing preventing other news organizations from re-reporting (and I mean re-reporting) the paper’s story, and properly implemented fair use would allow other news sites and blogs to cite and credit the newspaper report. If newspapers follow the New York Times model, this sort of aggregation is explicitly allowed.

Other local news outlets don’t need to duplicate the mission and expense of high-purpose newspaper journalism to take a bite out of the digital paywall; they just need to divert the part of the audience — which is the bulk of the audience — that just wants a quick local-new fix.

7. The barrier to entry for producing local news is quite low in the Digital Age.

Of course, this is an area where my expertise is firsthand. It’s what I do every day—produce quick-and-easy local news for a ravenous local audience.
Some of the anonymous commenters in the CJR conversation took a look at The Batavian and belittled what I do, which is fine with me. They’re not our intended audience. We’re not trying to be a substitute for big, expensive journalism (though we’ve done a few enterprise and investigative pieces (examples here, here, and here).

Howard Owens is publisher of The Batavian, an online-only news site serving Genesee County, NY. He has been an online executive with the Ventura County Star, Bakersfield Californian and GateHouse Media.