The “hamster wheel” fallacy: Why paywalls don’t mean better journalism

There are plenty of arguments for why a newspaper or other traditional media outlet might decide to implement a paywall — including a need for revenue to supplement declining print advertising, or a desire to form a stronger bond with its readers. But do paywalls automatically mean that you get better journalism? In other words, does a free and ad-supported model mean that the journalism you get is of lower quality, because of the “hamster wheel” effect? Dean Starkman makes that case in the Columbia Journalism Review, but his argument rests on some pretty flimsy ground. The reality is that the connection between journalistic quality and paywalls is not as concrete as he makes it seem.

In his CJR column, which is entitled “The hamster wheel vs. the quality imperative,” Starkman takes aim at Digital First Media — the newspaper chain run by John Paton, which recently petitioned the court to put its subsidiary Journal Register Co. into bankruptcy for the second time, as a way of dealing with legacy costs like printing agreements and underfunded pension plans. The first clue to where Starkman is going comes when he says Digital First’s name is a misnomer, because the journalistic practices it advocates “are now commonplace in American newsrooms,” a statement that seems like a bit of a stretch at best.

Being ad-supported does not equal cheap click-bait

Starkman goes on to say that the most distinctive thing about Digital First’s model isn’t the digital-first part, but rather the fact that the chain gives most of its content away for nothing (although the company actually owns a number of papers that have paywalls). Says Starkman:

“The most distinctive thing about JRC at this point, rhetoric aside, is its business model: It gives away online for free what it charges for in print. Digital subscriptions — paywalls — are not part of the mix. Its online business relies on digital ads pretty much entirely.

As any number of industry analysts have pointed out, this kind of hard distinction between the business models of free web publishers and print newspapers is largely nonsense. While print publishers may charge for home delivery or ask for a dollar at the newsstand, this subsidizes a fraction of what appears in the paper. For the most part, advertising has paid the freight for journalism for decades, just as it does online — although papers like the New York Times are moving towards an era where reader subscriptions may provide the lion’s share of revenue (in part because advertising is declining).

Regardless, the CJR columnist goes on to argue that because both Digital First Media and Advance Publications — the Newhouse-owned chain that recently stopped printing a number of its newspapers every day, including the Times-Picayune in New Orleans — have pursued a free and advertising-supported model, their journalism is questionable. As far as Starkman is concerned, that model translates directly into a “hamster wheel” approach that emphasizes quantity over quality and the pursuit of cheap click-bait. A paywall like the one at the New York Times, however, does the opposite by encouraging high-quality journalism:

“It also created what could be called a ‘quality imperative:’ The new revenue stream could be used to help maintain quality but at the same time, the paper had to produce journalism that justified someone actually pulling out their credit card to pay for it.”

There is plenty of quality journalism supported by ads

A former newspaper colleague of mine made a similar argument after her paper put up a paywall, saying she hoped that not having to bend to the whims of advertisers would prevent her colleagues from turning into a bunch of “page-view whores,” focused on posting nothing but photo galleries of swimsuit models. But this argument, like Starkman’s, is based on a fallacy: the idea that simply because your content happens to be supported by advertising, that it can’t be of high quality.

It’s interesting that Starkman doesn’t mention another prominent newspaper that has not erected a paywall — the Washington Post, where chairman Donald Graham and publisher Katharine Weymouth are both opposed to the idea of charging for digital content. Would the CJR writer argue that the Post‘s journalism is of lesser quality because it is supported by advertising? What about Wired or The Atlantic, both of which provide their digital journalism free of charge online — are they of lesser quality as well?

Not long ago, Starkman might have used The Huffington Post (s aol) as a premier example of his argument: after all, the site was routinely criticized for not paying — and therefore unfairly taking advantage of — its bloggers, and for having an over-aggregation oriented approach that was devoted solely to hogging pageviews. The site wouldn’t fit Starkman’s case any more, however, since The Huffington Post now routinely does investigative journalism and has even won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so. And yet it seems to have been able to do this without a paywall around its content.

The fact is that newspapers have always been driven in part by a desire for advertising revenue, even if they charged a small fee to readers. The simple removal of that fee for digital content doesn’t somehow turn a newspaper into a drooling, click-happy pageview whore, just as charging readers for your content doesn’t somehow magically transform you into a bastion of journalistic integrity (plenty of gutter-dwelling tabloids charge their readers for content). Starkman may want to portray the connection between business model and journalism as A equals B, but the reality is a lot more complicated than that.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/ADA Photo and Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni