Why pushing for a paywall at the Washington Post completely misses the point

As paywalls continue to spring up at newspapers both large and small, like mushrooms after a rainstorm, those who have chosen to take a different path — the Guardian in Britain, the Washington Post and Digital First Media in the U.S. — start to stand out from the crowd even more, and inevitably their decision gets painted as a failure to adapt or a sign that they are not very bright, or both. A recent post in the Columbia Journalism Review takes this tack on the Washington Post, saying the paper has to set up a paywall immediately or risk disaster. But this focus on a paywall as a magic solution misses the point about the larger risks facing both the Post and the industry as a whole.

In his piece, Dean Starkman of the CJR uses the departure of editor Marcus Brauchli as a hook for his argument that the Post needs to have a paywall. He tries to make the case that editor’s removal — over what appears to have been a disagreement about cost-cutting at the money-losing paper, among other things — is just a smokescreen, and that the real issue is that publisher Katharine Weymouth and CEO Don Graham’s decision to avoid a paywall amounts to a “strategic failure.” As Starkman describes it:

“The paper has become the American newspaper industry‚Äôs poster child for the folly of clinging to a free digital strategy… As Monty Python would put it, the free strategy is a dead parrot. The illogic of giving away something online that you charge for elsewhere is now coming home to roost.”

Of hamster wheels and original sin

In just a few paragraphs, the CJR writer manages to hit nearly all of the major notes of the pro-paywall lobby: namely, that the free approach to content has been proven to be a total failure (Starkman later also reiterates his argument that free content turns newsrooms into a virtual “hamster-wheel,” which I have taken issue with in a previous post), and that publishers of all kinds were wrong when they committed the “original sin” of not charging for their content in the early days of the internet, a theory that others have successfully debunked a number of times.

Starkman also dismisses the idea that there is any value in the digital-first approach, arguing that the recent bankruptcy filing of the Journal-Register Co. — a unit of Digital First Media — proves this beyond dispute (even though it only affected a small portion of the larger company and was a symptom of the legacy-cost problem that all newspapers suffer from, rather than a problem with a digital-first model). He also dismisses the proposed solutions that I and others have suggested, such as a membership or “reverse paywall” model or any attempt to reinvent what the Post does:

“To say, in the absence of supporting data, that the answer for the Post is to ‘commit’ to an anti-paywall strategy, to ‘push the innovation meter to 11,’ and make ‘digital first a core mandate’ is to say nothing at all.”

In other words, Starkman sees only one potential path forward, which is that the Post has to erect a paywall just like everyone else, and that this will solve its financial problems better than any other competing strategy. But is this actually true? For all his commitment to arguments that are based on facts, there is little to support Starkman’s conclusion — except the argument that the New York Times has a paywall and it seems to be doing pretty well, which is the same argument that newspaper publishers all over the U.S. are using to justify erecting them, as though anything that works for the NYT will work for them.

Sandbags don’t solve a rising-water problem


Does that mean the Post will have similar success, or that other strategies are not worth pursuing? I don’t see how. I’ve tried to make the case before that paywalls are a sandbag strategy — one that can help keep the rising waters (in this case, the ongoing rapid decline in print advertising revenue) at bay, but not much else. Sandbags don’t solve a rising water problem, just as paywalls won’t get rid of a declining revenue problem: you need to figure out how to get the water to stop coming in, or find out what is causing it and adapt to that. Paywalls do neither.

Even the New York Times — which has what is probably one of the world’s most successful paywalls for a general-interest newspaper — is finding that the revenue from its plan is barely keeping pace with the decline in print revenue, and meanwhile digital ad revenue is also falling (possibly as a result of the decline in traffic caused by the paywall, as I described in an earlier post). As former news executive Alan Mutter notes, the failure to adapt to the rise of digital advertising is the biggest single long-term problem that newspapers have. Will a paywall solve that problem?

If what Starkman envisions as the future of the Post is a much smaller entity that subsists primarily on reader subscriptions, then that’s fine, but that’s not what he’s saying. He seems to be suggesting that a paywall can somehow stop the bleeding (i.e. the declines in revenue) and remove the need for cuts to payroll, and maintain the Post‘s presence as an “important institution” in national journalism. But unless it achieves unheard of success — beyond even that of the New York Times — there is no way a paywall is going to accomplish all of those things.

In an essay about the Post that Starkman (wrongly) cites as support for his case, Clay Shirky talks about the problem confronting the newspaper, which is a smaller version of the same problem that is confronting the entire industry: namely, the fact that the way information works has changed, and newspapers have to figure out how to give up their traditional role as gatekeepers of that information and find a new role where they can add value. Starkman’s urgent advice that the Post immediately put up a wall around its content does exactly nothing to solve that larger problem.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Zert Sonstige and the U.S. Army