No, metered-content walls won’t save journalism

Paywalls of all kinds have been popping up at newspapers across North America like mushrooms after a rainstorm, thanks in large part to the adoption of a metered paywall at the New York Times last year. The latest to join the cavalcade are some of the major papers in Canada’s Postmedia chain — including the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun — which launched subscription plans for their websites on Wednesday. Postmedia no doubt hopes that the extra revenue will help make up for the continuing decline in print advertising that has hit the entire industry, but one editor at the Citizen has a more specific wish: she hopes the paywall will stop papers like hers from becoming “page-view whores” and thus will help save journalism. But will it?

Melanie Coulson, a senior editor in charge of the online unit of the Ottawa, Ontario paper (and also a former colleague of mine when I worked for the online version of the Globe and Mail in Toronto), writes on her personal blog about how she is worried that newspapers like hers have become too fixated on “competing for page views so that we can gain revenue from advertisers in a pay-per-click business model” and that this is no longer working. Instead of focusing on serious journalism, Coulson says, too many media outlets are chasing eyeballs by using pageview-boosting tactics such as titillating slideshows and celebrity news briefs. As she describes it:

“If a newsroom is working to get a lot of page views, it’s simply a case of posting a lot of photo galleries, and celebrity stories. I can only imagine this is why, last winter, we posted galleries illustrating AquaYoga poses and NHL Cheerleaders.”

Does ad-supported have to mean pageview whoring?

Coulson also talks about how even credible news outlets such as the New York Times and MSNBC can be sucked into publishing questionable or even outright fraudulent stories because of their desire for traffic, and refers to a recent book by former PR flak Ryan Holiday called “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” In it, Holiday confesses to working non-news stories into outlets like the Times and ABC News by placing them first in small or medium-sized blogs, reports that would then get picked up by larger players.

The crux of Coulson’s argument for a paywall is that if a newspaper is being supported largely by readers, then it can focus on high-quality journalism instead of having to chase after random eyeballs to generate more advertising revenue. As she puts it in her post:

“Quality local content. That’s exactly what our newsroom is supposed to be focused on – not re-hashing wire stories. I’m not saying that a meter and paywall will solve all revenue problems in a digital newsroom… And I struggle with the concept of building a strong, loyal community while charging for content. But if it means we turn our attention to quality journalism –- and not being page-view whores, posting cheap galleries and the latest celebrity gossip –- I think that’s a good thing.”


I think there are a couple of flaws in this argument, and not just because I dislike newspaper paywalls for a number of reasons, as I’ve written before (in fact, the paywall at the Globe and Mail that helped transform me into a blogger was erected when Coulson and I were working there in the mid-2000s). One of the flaws is the idea that a metered subscription plan — which most newspaper executives prefer to the term “paywall,” for obvious reasons — is going to do anything much to help save a paper like the Citizen, or even the Postmedia chain in general (the Globe and Mail is also erecting a new paywall soon).

Walls may save a paper, but they won’t save journalism

If anything, such plans are merely a line of sandbags designed to try and stem the flow of water that is rising faster and faster outside the walls of most newsrooms. Even the New York Times, which has what is arguably one of the most successful paywalls ever introduced by a general-news outlet with more than 500,000 subscribers, is not pulling in enough revenue to make up for the ongoing decline in print advertising revenue, as advertisers search for better ways of reaching their potential customers. The NYT claims that its ad business is fine even after the paywall, but digital ad revenue fell in the most recent quarter as well as print revenue.

But the biggest flaw in Coulson’s reasoning, I think, is the idea that having subscribers means newspapers won’t have to be driven by pageview-based tactics any more, and can just focus on high-quality journalism. This assumes that the readers who subscribe will be radically different creatures than the ones who read the content for free: in other words, they will only be interested in serious journalism and not celebrity news briefs or slideshows, whereas the free reader is driven only by their interest in those sleazy eyeball-grabbing tactics.

I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think most readers who pay will still want just as many of those things, and will only continue subscribing as long as they get them — and without them, the paper’s subscription base may be loyal, but it will also be relatively tiny. This is the flip-side of the transformation that some newspapers like the NYT have already undergone, where the revenue provided by readers now exceeds the revenue provided by advertising. While that may seem like it would provide great freedom to pursue quality, it also means the the paper is even more beholden to a small group of readers, as Clay Shirky has argued.

That may be a good thing or it may not, we don’t really know yet. But one thing is for sure: while metered paywalls may help to save specific newspapers, they aren’t going to save journalism — if by “journalism” you mean the process of informing as many people as you can about news that is important to their lives. By definition, paywalls restrict the reach of a newspaper and that has very real implications for the social aspects of journalism as opposed to the business of one specific newspaper. In the end, we have to answer the question: What is journalism for?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and The U.S. Army