No, giving away the news doesn’t mean lower-quality journalism

Amid all the heated debates over whether paywalls and subscription models are the solution to the ongoing disruption of traditional media, one argument resurfaces again and again — namely, that a free or advertising-supported news model is inherently incompatible with high-quality journalism. Dean Starkman, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, has made this point in the past and reiterates it in a recent post entitled “Facing up to the high cost of free news.” In a nutshell, Starkman tries to make the case that because advertising is based on volume, it encourages low-quality clickbait, whereas subscription models are more compatible with high-quality investigative journalism. But is this true?

Starkman first tackled this idea a few weeks ago, with a post that described how ad-supported media almost inevitably results in what he and others have called “hamster wheel” journalism — that is, a steady stream of click-driven ephemera and cheap pageview-boosting tactics rather than quality reporting. Although the CJR writer maintains in his latest post that he is only raising the question rather than drawing a direct line between the two, it is pretty obvious that he believes the “free” news model is a road to perdition, journalistically speaking:

Pretty soon, proponents of free digital news will have to own up to the implications of their model. The structure is flawed. To rely on online ads as the sole source of revenue is both unsound in theory, and in practice it’s having disastrous consequences in regional newsrooms.

Does free mean a “journalistic train wreck?”

And where is the evidence for this assertion? Starkman points to the cutbacks at Advance Publications, the Newhouse-owned chain that has cut back on printing frequency at newspapers in New Orleans and Alabama, and has shut down printing altogether in Michigan — and has been criticized widely for its failure to invest in quality journalism. As Starkman puts it, “there’s a journalistic train wreck going on right now in New Orleans and in Alabama that’s directly attributable to the free digital model.”

I think it’s a little early to say that what Advance is doing is a “journalistic train wreck,” unless Starkman has seen evidence that hasn’t been made public. Are the chain’s websites a shining example of online journalism? Perhaps not. But they claim to be committed to increasing the quality of their offerings as they try to transition to a digital-first model, something I have argued every media entity has to do, whether they want to or not. Starkman clearly prefers the approach taken by the Orange County Register, which is de-emphasizing digital and pouring its investment into print. But is there any more evidence that this will be a successful strategy than there is for what Advance is trying to do? Not really.

In my earlier response to Starkman, and others who say free news encourages the “hamster wheel” or click-whoring approach, I tried to point out — as Steve Buttry of Digital First Media does in his response to the latest CJR piece — that there are a number of good examples of free or advertising-based journalism that is of relatively high quality, including the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. But Starkman says he isn’t buying that argument:

“WaPo the newspaper… is a huge money loser, subsidized by other parts of the business. So whatever quality it is still able to produce in no way can be attributed to the free model. It comes in spite of it. Rather, the paper and its declining journalistic and financial fortunes is a cautionary tale, a living example of the dangers of clinging to the mast of free.”

Journalism needs more than just a paywall

In other words, the CJR writer doesn’t see the Washington Post or the Huffington Post (which recently won a Pulitzer for its investigative reporting) as proof that ad-supported news can still be of high quality, but the poor quality of Advance’s websites is somehow clear and incontrovertible evidence that free news leads to a “journalistic train wreck.” If you exclude the evidence that detracts from your opinion, how can you say that you are actually interested in the answer to the question?

As I tried to point out earlier, if you want to find evidence that advertising supports quality journalism or that it doesn’t support quality journalism, there is plenty to be found for either case, just by looking at the history of the traditional newspaper business over the last 50 years. For most of that period, newspapers have been subsidized primarily by advertising — and some of them have produced good journalism while others have not. In fact, I would argue that the funding model you choose to implement doesn’t pre-suppose or pre-determine anything about the actual product itself, if it ever has.

Is the advertising industry still too focused on cheap eyeball-based measurements such as pageviews, banner impressions and clicks? Yes. That’s not the media’s fault, but it does have a very real impact on business models, and plenty of outlets — including The Atlantic — are trying hard to find “native” forms of advertising that are based more on engagement. I’ve also argued that media players need to think about more than just a paywall as a solution to their problems, and look at ways of deepening their relationship with their most dedicated readers (including selling things).

Starkman seems to believe that paywalls are always the best model for journalism, and so he selects evidence that supports that argument and ignores any that contradicts it. But the reality is that the media business has always involved a combination of reader subscriptions and advertising, and the future of digital media and journalism will likely share aspects of both — as well as other models that we haven’t even anticipated. Some will produce high-quality journalism and some will not, just as newspapers always have, and in the end readers will vote for that content with their attention.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users George Kelly, Giuseppe Bognanni and Michelle Thompson