The basic notion behind a paywall is, “Journalism is expensive, therefore people should pay for it.” The notion ignores evidence to the contrary and locks in a mindset that believes the way we’ve always done it is the only way to do it. Paywall advocates are not innovators, and if you’re not an innovator in the fast-moving Digital Age, you’re dead.

One of the real dangers of the current paywall schemes isn’t that they won’t produce revenue; it’s that they will become the proverbial golden handcuffs, producing too much revenue to abandon but not enough to accomplish what advocates hope: save journalism. Newspapers will become trapped behind their paywalls, unwilling to jettison the revenue, unable to change course toward more profitable seas.
The result: The very notion of innovation will be even more repulsive in corporate boardrooms.

The primary reason newspapers have up to this point failed to build real online news businesses, as I pointed out before, is this resistance in their organizations to change.
Publishers—and primarily the corporate CEOs beholden to shareholders—have not wanted to do the hard things that go with building a new business, from doing things radically different to hiring enough of the right people to initiate innovative strategies.

Look at the initial approach publishers took to the Web: shovelware.
Shovelware was a word invented by one of the pioneers of online journalism (I don’t know who) to label the practice of taking the content feed from the daily newspaper and porting it over to HTML.

For years, from 1994 until about 2004 (when the Ventura County Star and a few other news sites transformed their homepages into manually curated creations rather than automatically fed billboards) every daily newspaper website in the country was updated once a day, after—and this is key—the print edition was already published.
As I’ve written before, the original sin for newspapers wasn’t giving away their content for free. It was failing to create new online businesses.

Throughout my career in the corporate world of online journalism, I watched promising and innovative initiatives wither and die because of lack of support, either in the newsroom or in the advertising offices.

Newspapers have long suffered from feebleness when it comes to insisting employees go along with changes, and impotency when it comes to spending the money necessary to institute innovative ideas.

Of course, not all of these ideas would have succeeded; innovation is as much about failure as success. But some would have, and collectively they might have made a significant impact on audience and revenue for newspapers.

Newspaper publishers—and the CEOs who hire and fire them—failed, generally, to embrace innovation.

And now, rather than take a hard look at their mistakes and figure out a new way forward, publishers are retreating behind paywalls, which feels like a last-ditch effort to fortify a dying business.

It’s just sad.

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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.