the audit

Audit Notes: WaPo likely to get a wall; papers as luxury product; thought on The Daily; Barofsky

Long overdue in the nation's capital; That was Murdoch's ideal newspaper? etc.
December 6, 2012

The news: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Washington Post is most likely adopting a wall next year. The topic has been the subject of passionate debate in journalism circles lately, including, most certainly, around here.

The Washington Post, one of the last holdouts against the trend of charging readers for online access to newspaper articles, is likely to reverse that decision in 2013, according to people familiar with the matter.

While details are being finished, people familiar with the matter said that a metered paywall—meaning a website that allows casual readers to read a certain number of stories free before charging a subscription fee — is likely to be rolled out in 2013, along with increases to the print newspaper’s newsstand.

(The rest of the story is, well, behind a paywall.)

For what it’s worth, a person familiar with the planning, whom I talked to today, said a wall next year was “very likely.”

Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of the parent company, had long opposed a wall, but recently began to soften his position.

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More on this later. Obviously, we think this is a very good and long overdue move.

—On the subject of paywalls, John Cassidy writes about the irony of Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger winding up on the same side of the business when it comes to charging for news. Cassidy states the obvious: “Those who said that people won’t pay for news online were simply wrong,” but adds the troubling prediction that newspapers will become just another premium product.

The change is already well under way. Rather than behaving like traditional press barons, or crusaders for a particular set of political values, people like Murdoch and Sulzberger are increasingly aping the makers of other consumer goods, such as fashionable clothes and trendy gadgets: limiting free online access, pushing up their subscription prices, and generally trying to exploit the power of their brands to distinguish themselves from lesser competitors. At the Times and the Journal, most readers still get home delivery and/or, a digital subscription. For the Times, the annual cost of the paper edition (delivered to Brooklyn) and full online access is $629.20. For the Journal, which only comes out six days a week, a similar package is $501.80. Anybody who gets both papers delivered, as I did for years, will end up paying $1,131.00.

That’s the absolutely highest price, of course. But the idea of news as a luxury good is certainly not an attractive prospect. Let’s hope it doesn’t become the next great problem to solve.

—Felix Salmon’s provocative idea that the limitations of its tablet publication model were enough to kill The Daily is giving way, on reflection, to the idea that, whatever the tablet’s limitations for news, the News Corp. product shouldn’t be the last word on the format or much of anything.

That was my initial feeling when I wondered why the post-mortems were so overwhelmingly weighted toward technical explanations and not on the Daily’s actual content. It was reinforced by much of the back-and-forth yesterday, including this interesting Twitter exchange between Felix and Ben Jackson of, linking to posts by Jackson and John Gruber.

Gruber’s point is that the idea that publishing on a single platform is not necessarily the problem, since some do it now, and that the Daily’s technical limitations were real but not unsolvable.

Josh Benton wrapped me on the Twitter knuckles for overlooking ex-Daily staffer Trevor Butterworth’s testimony that the publication, as a general matter, “simply added more average-reader content to a market saturated with free average-reader content.” That’s a sweeping, compressed assessment, but, for me it, carries extra weight coming from an ex-staffer. He’s saying it just wasn’t that interesting.

John Abell, a Reuters columnist, provides the view of a first-hopeful-then-disappointed reader.

For the few weeks I subscribed to The Daily I grew increasingly annoyed at the extent to which I was reading wire service copy. I’m sure I exaggerate but it seemed nearly every headline that attracted me wasn’t a home-grown article. Many of the enterprise, magazine-like articles seemed somewhat sensational, or trite.

For all I know, the tablet-only may indeed be a poor choice. But, remember, this was the newspaper Murdoch & Co. dreamed up from scratch, sparing no expense. And this is a company that owns almost 150 newspapers. Murdoch has long railed against/obsessed over alleged press elitism, especially among journalists. That drives his famous animus against The New York Times and was behind his desire to own The Wall Street Journal (major themes in both Michael Wolff’s and Sarah Ellison’s books). And here was his chance to show us what it’s all about.

To me, The Daily’s failure says a lot more about Murdoch’s banal vision of a newspaper than it does about a particular technology platform. A media scholar, seriously, should do a content analysis of The Daily, because that’s the purest expression you’ll get of what Murdoch thinks an ideal newspaper is supposed to be.

—Matt Stoller has a fun interview with Neil Barofsky, Simon Johnson’s (and my) choice for new Securities and Exchange Commission chief. While I wouldn’t hold my breath, reading Barofsky is an exercise in reimaging white-collar crime enforcement, which is another way of saying, reimagining the relationship between Wall Street and the government.

Here Barofsky talks about the need to revisit the longstanding, an often corrosive, practice of allowing big banks to settle fraud cases without admitting or denying wrongdoing:

I would want to have a real reexamination of the neither-admit-nor-deny settlement approach toward enforcement. And that goes to really a core question of the priorities of the agency and what it is they want to accomplish with their enforcement arm. One would assume that the neither-admit-nor-deny approach of settling cases, entering a settlement with financial penalties but not requiring the institution to acknowledge that it actually did something wrong — and really they haven’t gone after a lot of individuals for their role in these big financial problems in the big big banks — um, that’s going to likely generate higher cash value of settlements because they are more valuable to the institutions than ones in which they are acknowledging liability and therefore giving the basis for follow-on civil lawsuits from other entities. It is an approach where if your goal is to maximize returns for the agency and the victims in the form of restitution, it’s probably the right approach

If you come with a different approach, a different perspective, my perspective, an equally important if not more important goal is deterrence, and causing enough pain so that these types of behaviors don’t continue — so you don’t have these serial settlements of neither admit nor deny…. And that’s not to say it doesn’t have any place — it may have some place — but it certainly feels like the overwhelming default is to do this. The reality is that for these institutions several hundred million dollars in penalties and fines is unlikely to change significantly their behavior as an effective deterrent, and it may be worth rolling the dice and trying some of these cases, and winning, and scaring them into doing settlements of admissions of liability to achieve a significant deterrent effect, so the ramifications are more significant than the bad behavior.

A eminently reasonable idea that no one in government is talking about.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR’s business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.