(*Any observer of newspaper industry trends during the online era will note that the industry is brazen about hopping from one revenue stream or content fad to another, from Top Jobs to portals, day parting to video ads, auctions to targeted banners, etc. When one company tries something and has just enough success to brag about it at the next industry conference, the rest soon follow. That’s part of what’s happening now with paywalls.)
To whatever degree paywalls are successful, the extra revenue won’t be reinvested in making news products better. It will either service debt, paper over losses in other departments, or help pay dividends.
Simon’s support of a consortium of paywalls involving newspapers and wire services does nothing to protect journalism in the current state of corporate governance for the majority of newspapers. It merely enables cost-heavy chains to carry on a bit longer.
The printies have truly gotten in bed with the bean counters, but not to their benefit, and they just can’t see it.
This is something the High Church of Journalism folks don’t want to discuss: What if journalism itself is broken?
There is a lot of short-term thinking that goes into analyzing the current state of newspapers. It sometimes seems if there was some Golden Age of Newspapers when household penetration was 100 percent and everybody in America loved a print reporter, then in 1994 it all went to hell in a hand basket of HTML.
Reality, of course, is different. Household penetration started to drop in the 1930s, circulation stopped climbing in the late 1950s, and the number of people per thousand who read a daily newspaper started declining in the 1970s.
The events driving down newspaper readership are numerous, but students of journalism history know that journalism has done a poor job of responding to changes in culture and civic life. Newsrooms have long believed their means and methods are sacrosanct and inviolate.
There is also the problem of so-called objective journalism. Journalists have been trained to consider themselves apart from the community, delivering “just the facts” from on high. This has led to a journalism that is stilted, predictable, and boring.
Objective reporting was born in the 1910s (what a coincidence, just before newspapers started their 100-year decline), and Walter Lippmann has traditionally been credited as the godfather of objectivity in news reports.
However, what is often thought of today as objective news reporting is not the objectivity of Walter Lippmann.
From Lippmann’s Liberty and the News:
With this increase of prestige must go a professional training in journalism in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal. The cynicism of the trade needs to be abandoned, for the true patterns of the journalistic apprentice are not the slick persons who scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is. It does not matter that the news is not susceptible of mathematical statement. In fact just because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest of the scientific virtues. They are the habits of ascribing no more credibility to a statement than it warrants, a nice sense of the probabilities and a keen understanding of the quantitative importance of particular facts. (Emphasis added)
No good scientist is about “just the facts.” Science is about gathering data, making observations, and offering conclusions.
Clearly, Lippmann, himself an opinion writer, didn’t see a problem with a reporter having a point of view and being a personality.
This sort of personality-driven journalism didn’t suit the 20th century newspaper publisher, however. Corporate journalism needs reporters who are interchangeable widgets. Take out one byline and insert another, and readers hardly notice the difference. This less-robust journalism, while not great for circulation in the long run, set the publisher’s mind at ease. He could worry less about stories that might piss off advertisers.
Now journalism is moving into an age where individuality and personality matter even more, but by and large journalism is unwilling to change with the times.
The Digital Age, with all of its intimacy and immediacy, is really about a form of personal journalism, where who the journalist is adds context and meaning and engages readers, giving the reporting more impact.
Putting up paywalls does nothing to address the question: Is your newspaper producing the kind of journalism people will actually pay for?
A paywall is reactionary. It represents a mindset that says there’s nothing wrong with our journalism or our business approach. It is also an admission of failure at building a real online news business.