Don’t Build the Wall [Part 1 of 2]

This is part one of a two part post in which I spend some time questioning David Simon’s Columbia Journalism Review feature about the way to save the newspaper industry through online subscriptions, “Build the Wall.” The Cliff Notes of both posts: I disagree with him. The first part of the long version is below.

Amongst the links I’ve been passing around these past few days, there was a tip in Ezra Klein’s post last night back to a feature in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review. I had missed the piece when it first came out last week due to travel, but I had some time last night to settle into the 4,000+ word thought piece/”open letter” on why the biggest players in the American newspaper industry – the New York Times and the Washington Post – should simultaneously erect paid, subscription walls to their online portals.

After going through David Simon’s article with a highlighter, here’s what my copy looked like:

fun with highlighters

Needless to say by the bleeding yellow paper, I had a few questions and counterpoints. This is going to be fun, I promise. So, from here on out, just to clarify well in advance, anything indented and italicized is what was originally written by Simon in his post; the bolded text is mine.

The rest of the print journalism world is in slash-and-burn mode, cutting product and then wondering why the product won’t sell, rushing to give away what remains online and wondering further why that content is held by advertisers to be valueless.

We’ll start with the context. Simon argued that it will require the simultaneous (read: questionably bartered slash colluded slash anti-trust) movement of the two remaining juggernauts of print media to build a successful, pay-per-read online news model. He’s right in one way: there’s no doubt that the content within these sites is at the top of the most linked to on blogs and Twitter; therefore, it’s among the gateways of online news. If anyone can lead, it’s probably them.

But he overlooks one critical point: he just groups “product” into one lump. When it comes to a pay model, “the news” – facts, straight information – is the unimportant part, but it’s the bulk of that product. Commentary and unique journalism, the smaller part of the paper, that’s what can carry a price tag. The news, from major world events to insignificant pop culture milestones, will come by way of so many different channels that cannot be ignored. Accept that “breaking news” is pretty useless as a metric of success, please, in terms of audience reach. The elite editorial is what makes your sources valuable to bring people back.

I know that content wants to be free on the Internet. I know that the horse was long ago shown the barn door and that, belatedly, the idea of creating a new revenue stream from online subscriptions seems daunting and dangerous. I know that commentary—the froth and foam of print journalism—sells itself cheaply and well on thousands of blogs. I know that the relationships between newspapers and online aggregators—not to mention The Associated Press and Reuters—will have to be revisited and revised. True, all true.

It’s not that the horse has seen the barn door that makes the paid online media about as appealing as a stick in the eye; it’s that the there’s a pencil-thin difference between a news reporter online and a non-professional journalism. Basically, we’re talking masthead, business cards and access (yes, I over simplified that to leave out heady, journalistic tradition). We’re decently level on the playing field regarding content development and what Simon proposes is rebuilding a hierarchy between the journalist and stereotypical-non-professional-blogger by establishing a premium “because that’s how news should operate.”

It’s not just the content is online, though, it’s how easily it can be created and shared through the technology that’s widely available in free information markets. We don’t need thoroughbreds who have an institutional advantage (a printing press, an FCC license, a satellite, a studio) to get our news. The influencers will find other ways to learn and pass information out there because the barrier of entry is miniscule.

And yes, I know that if one of you should try to go behind the paywall while the other’s content remains free, then, yes, you would be destroyed.

Ultimatums are dangerous, just saying. These are decent sized markets with ideological chasms between the other newspaper options in the city. Oh yeah, paid subscriptions are also likely to come with online subscriptions, and you will not see an utter destruction of one paper just because the other pub has a free online service.

Where the Times and The Post lead, Murdoch and, ultimately, every desperate and starving newspaper chain will simply follow. Why? Because the need to create a new revenue stream from the twenty-first century’s information-delivery model is, belatedly, apparent to many in the industry. But no one can act if the Times and The Post do not; the unique content of even a functional regional newspaper—state and municipal news, local sports and culture—is insufficient to demand that readers pay online. But add to that the national and international coverage from the national papers that would no longer be available on the Internet for free but could be provided through participation in the news services of the Times and The Post and, finally, there is a mix of journalism that justifies a subscription fee.

Wait, let’s wait for the rest of the point:

Neither the Times nor the Post can do this alone.

The last three points are all within about 700 words of each other. The lumbering giant of newspaper is apparently so large that the entire network relies on these two and these two rely on each other for their business model. How is this any less collusion than what he proposes throughout the piece? “Everyone else is doing it” is a terrible way to run a business. I’m coming back to the local media stuff, too, in a bit.

…the misapprehension of men and women who spent their lives believing in the primacy of newsprint is as tragic as the strategists who built battleships even after Billy Mitchell used air power to bomb one to the ocean floor in 1921.

Wow, dramatic much? Were there that many career-minded newspaper folk who refused to acknowledge changes? Or just those who ended up in charge after the smart ones got hired away? (Was that too many Socratic questions in a row?)

In tomorrow’s response, I’ll take down the three scenarios that Simon proposes will happen. SPOILER ALERT: in his model, the Times and Post come out winners in all three.


One Comment on “Don’t Build the Wall [Part 1 of 2]”

  1. […] to my three favorite pieces on this topic. The two part “Don’t Build the Wall” (part 1, part 2), and my all time favorite, “Is News Too Cheap to […]

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