Monday, July 27, 2009...12:00 pm

Journalism: a suicide note

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I’ve just read Build the Wall – a gently impassioned, 4,250 word essay in the Columbia Journalism Review by David Simon – that declares the only future for journalism is if newspapers – all newspapers, everywhere (in the US anyway) – start charging for their online content.
It’s billed as “One man’s bold blueprint”. It’s actually “One man’s recipe for newspaper suicide”.
His recipe in brief:

  • The financial future of newspaper journalism is in the hands of just two people: New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
  • Together, they should simultaneously erect a subscription pay wall in front of the content on their respective web sites. (On September 1, for convenience).
  • They should coerce news wire services to only offer content to providers of paid-for content.
  • They should fund a trade group to pursue bloggers and aggregators for copyright infringement.

The argument goes like this:

  • TV used to be free, but cable companies have successfully made people pony up monthly fees to watch (eventually) better programming.
  • Newspapers, in contrast, spent the past couple of decades cutting back on resources and undermining the product.
  • When this happened in the US car industry, Americans went off and bought Toyotas. But there is no substitute product for newspapers. Blogs and the like just don’t cut the mustard.
  • Newspapers also focused on advertising as their financial model (bad), rather than subscriptions (good).
  • But people are flocking to the web sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post. So they must think the online version is even better than the printed papers.
  • It’s too expensive to publish printed newspapers profitably. So jack up the price of the paper product, thus forcing those readers online.
  • Then make them pay for the online version. Many may decline to do so. But if you keep 10 per cent of your readers, that’s still a lot of cash money.
  • You can use this cash money to improve the product and attract more subscribers.
  • Repeat ad infinitum until newspapers are rich, rich, rich.

He postulates three possible outcomes for the industry:

  1. The strategy pretty much works – the two leading players set an example for other city papers, who follow suit and everyone starts making money again.
  2. Lots of cities actually lose their newspapers. But – hoorah – paid subscription news organisations move into the vacuum and keep journalism alive online, where costs are much lower. It’s a cut-down model but, hey, quite a few journalists are still employed.
  3. The Times and the Post survive “because their coverage is unique and essential”, but nothing else does, really.

And we don’t have much time – so could you both just get on with it please.
Why this is wrong on so many levels
Well, actually, first where he’s right. As has been pointed out by commentators here, the newspaper business did shoot itself in the foot when it hollowed out its offering by cutting costs and sweating assets. No argument there.
But, really. Let’s take a look at the rest of his points:

  • There is no alternative

You might notice it kind of contradicts itself in saying that [a] the web has supplied no real substitute for newspapers, but [b] the New York Times and Washington Post web sites must be even better than the print editions because millions of users flock to them. This is a long essay and I am flaying it to get the essence, so I could perhaps be misinterpreting David Simon’s points. But I don’t think so.

What he really means, I think, is that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers other than what the newspapers themselves offer on the web. I suggest that this isn’t so – it’s just that the web has provided no real substitute for newspapers that are like what newspapers understand to be journalism. Which is subtly different.

It’s a familiar complaint. But see Paul Bradshaw’s handy list of blog-moments-that-are-very-much-like-journalism for one rebuttal.

One key difference is that all the useful and journalistic material on the web is not available in one place, as a newspaper would offer it. But there is an answer to that and it’s aggregation. But newspapers hate that because they see it as unfair competition. And would pursue it through copyright lawsuits if this essay had its way.

  • Cable TV points the way

This is not so daft, but ultimately I don’t think it works. Yes, Americans have got used to paying for TV that used to be free. But think about TV, and think about newspapers.

Viewers watch TV in the comfort of their homes, relaxing on the sofa, eating their dinner, and being entertained. They did that in the 1950s, and they still do that now. (Although, come to think of it, a BBC survey found 16- to 24-year-olds are now being distracted by the internet and are watching less TV nowadays. So, you know, the cable TV model might not be as robust as you think.)

In any event, TV consumption is different from that of newspapers.

Newspapers, in this argument, are hard work. They’re worthwhile and improving. And you need time to read them. Time that, it seems, we have less of. It’s a different product, consumed in a different way. And the success of cable TV may actually undermine newspapers, as the more time we spend in front of HBO, the less time we spend reading the op-ed pages of the Times.

  • Lessons from the car industry

The other thing to bear in mind about the analogy of the car industry is that Americans were happy to switch from US car makers to foreign competitors when the US cars became crappy, because they really needed  a car.

In contrast, Americans – and by extension the rest of us – don’t have to buy a newspaper. Really. We can live without that heady blend of news and gossip. For days. And we have found other substitutes that work just as well in totally different ways.

Journalists find it incomprehensible that people can spend their time with text messaging, mobile games and iPods instead of a newspaper and be just as happy. If not more so. Weird.

  • You can’t force people to consume your product

Raising the price of your printed product will certainly cut the numbers of people buying it. But it won’t by default drive them to the online version. The implicit assumption here is that a newspaper are somehow intrinsic to your readers’ lives and they will pursue it anywhere you choose to drive them. This is false.

True, raising the price may help cover production costs better for a while, as the die-hards still pony up for the product. But it’s guaranteed to make newspapers a highly specialist purchase over time. Which their content doesn’t really justify.

And people may go online to read the news, but that doesn’t mean they’ll treat it in the same way they would the paper they’ve just given up. It’s not a direct substitution.

  • People may visit your web site only because it is free

The essay supposes that 10% of a newspaper’s many thousands of web visitors will pay for the privilege. But this is again based on the assumption that newspapers need direct substitution. That life without the local metro paper is somehow a life not worth living.

But people consume the web version of the paper in a different way from the print version. Many people are letting go of the habit of buying and reading a daily paper as their main source of printed information and escape in the day. Instead they browse a wide range of online content and also do other things with their time, from Facebook to YouTube.

  • Nothing is indispensable

Finally, the idea that “The Times and The Post survive because their coverage is unique and essential” is nonsense. Nothing is irreplaceable. Especially not newspapers. Why? Because to the reading public they are not “essential” – clearly they can live without them. Nor are they “unique”, in that there’s an awful lot of similar material available elsewhere, from news to comment to entertainment.

In fact, they are only essential to journalists’ self-image. They reflect us, not the readers. And neither they nor, sadly for those of us in the industry with mortgages to pay, are indispensable.


  • Watch and learn.
    If you google “New York Times” and “online subscription” you’ll see that the top of the industry is indeed moving in the direction of charging for content. It will not be suicide for journalism. It will ultimately be the survival of the craft.
    Quality journalism requires paid professionals. The internet can manage commentary and only the vestiges of actual reportorial skill.
    Some newspapers are already so eviscerated they may not survive the transition to paid content. But some, like the NYT, will. And because the new digitized version of the newspaper has no attendant circulation or print costs, the old model no longer applies. Circulation revenue will replace ad revenue; it’s the new media folk who are looking backwards when they cite the past.
    In some markets it may well be that a newspaper is too weak to charge for content and a website emerges “St.” or whatever, that provides first-rate journalism. But that will require paid, trained reporters and editors at that website to create content that holds to the best standards of journalism. And that of course will mean a pay model, in which case, it is in effect an online subscription model.
    And people will pay for the best journalism. Not everyone who once bought a newspaper as a home subscription or newsstand sale, but enough so that a new digitized model of a newspaper will come into being.
    You get what you pay for. Free = crap. The internet equivalent of journalism proves this every day in my city, state, region, nationally and internationally. Sorry.

  • Damn it, I wish I had a crystal ball. The uncertainty in the industry feels almost paralysing at times…

  • Not Really – if people aren’t buying newspapers, why do you think they’re going to pay for it on the net?

  • and paid-for netnews = paid for TV is not a valid argument. I pay for access to the whole net. I don’t want to pay extra for ‘added value’ when I don’t see added value, and the equivalent is available elsewhere for free.

  • Hi Terry – yes, I think that’s the key point. Where’s the value in the content? Too many people don’t value journalism as much as journalists do (rightly or wrongly). And I don’t see many people subscribing to TV news channels except as part of a wider entertainment package…

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