Don’t Build the Wall [Part 2 of 2]Posted: August 5, 2009
This is part two 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 here.
We pick up where we left off in part one by jumping toward the end of David Simon’s CJR feature. I’m going to have my RunPee moment and skip over the middle part with a quick summary: the author wrote that the newspaper industry has mirrors in the auto industry, including its cheapening attitude in the 80s. (This is a really fantastic and uplifting comparison, and I quote from Simon: “Detroit lost to a better, new product; newspapers, to the vague suggestion of one.“). He finalizes the state of the world with the point that the disheartened attitudes started low among small newspapers and were not noticed by major pubs until it is too late.
Still, his solution remains unchanged: the Post and the Times must launch subscription models simultaneously to save it and no bad can come from it. Like the author, I am also suspending my belief regarding Department of Justice Anti-Trust actions. We get three scenarios from the author, and I will have my fun pointing out potential issues with each. Just as in part 1, my commentary is bolded; Simon’s original work is indented and italicized. Let’s play, shall we?
“…reassured that they can risk going behind the paywall without local readers getting free national, international, and cultural reporting from the national papers, and having seen that the paid-content formula can work, most metro dailies will follow suit. As they do, they re-emphasize that which makes them unique: local coverage, local culture, local voices—coupled with wire-service offerings from the national papers otherwise available only through paid sites.”
This is the “fall-in-line” model that is the dream world of Simon and the newspaper networks. If the wall works, it’s their golden proof that closed content survives and supports the print model. So, in this scenario, print survives because of the pay model. Conflict: you aren’t closing off the wall for people who get their news the old-fashioned way, and it is more than fair to assume that a newsprint subscription will come with online access. Your enemy is the person who doesn’t want your paper, your entire catalog of news stories on the myriad interests and topics. This isn’t going to make them start, because they will still have access to news. There will still be ways for your information to get out and the revenues will be modest in growth, not industry-saving. For every metro daily pushing out “local coverage, local culture, local voices” there will be a collection of citizen journalists already doing that who will not shut up and not stop quoting the events.
Big cities are bad examples, but there are some mid-markets like Seattle and Philly that boast connections to Gothamist who are a grander resource – and that network will grow, not shrink, if you make metro content premium. Local culture will still be revealed through your Yelps and Where the Locals Eat. Yes, a metro daily may be the only newspaper in town, but it is far from the only voice like it used to be.
Finally, from where are you planning to restock the news rooms? Those journalists you’ve already laid off from the metro daily? They are already out there, building new Web properties to keep their livelihood – and they have learned business modeling since then. They aren’t coming back just because you built a wall. Recruitment of writers will then change, and, the bigger problem becomes the fact that you have a green staff and lower quality content than before this all started.
Simon’s Scenario #2
“…the vacuum creates an opportunity for new, online subscription-based news organizations that cover state and local issues, sports, and finance, generating enough revenue to maintain a slim—but paid—metro desk. Again, given the absence of circulation costs, such an outcome becomes, by conservative estimates, entirely possible.”
I just made a point in scenario #1 about the traditional subscriptions comprising the bulk of “total subscription” users behind the wall. Take away those users and now where are you? If anything, and I’m going to compromise myself before even debunking scenario #3, this needs to start with the local newspaper that carries an important voice and unfiltered, really specific local content to move first while their print version still exists. Hyperlocal is the new local – and making that information premium should be the first priority.
Simon’s Scenario #3
“Except for one in which professional journalism doesn’t endure in any form, this is the worst of all worlds. The Times and The Post survive because their coverage is unique and essential. But the regional dailies, too eviscerated to offer a credible local product, cannot entice enough online subscriptions to make do. They wither and die. And further, new online news ventures are stillborn because both national papers become exactly that—national.
Imagine major American cities without daily newspapers, and further imagine the Times or The Post employing just enough local journalists in regional markets to produce zoned editions—The New York Times with, say, a ten-person St. Louis bureau, giving readers two or three pages of metro, sports, and local business coverage.”
The only reason I’m even acknowledging this as a possibility is the position that a world in which professional journalism doesn’t exist is apparently unspeakable. That to me is just a look-down-your-nose attitude at the way things are. We have seen that breaking news can come from so many more sources than it used to, that information in a free market can be free. The Times and the Post do not represent these “unique flowers” of journalism so special that their existence is the ultimate requirement for their to be a professional standard and hierarchy.
Journalists stand to be a profitable and professional industry if they are willing to rethink business beyond ads and subscription. I promise. Retreating behind walls to do it just to stick by what has made you last for centuries isn’t the solution. You have not brought the Trojan Horse into your city; it is already inside, and you know that it is not an empty prize. You have just simply chosen to build the fortress around it anyway.