Why does the paywall debate always have to become a religious war?

If there’s one topic that is guaranteed to turn a roomful of mild-mannered journalists into a snarling mass of teeth and fur, it is the question of paywalls — specifically, the increasing number of paywalls that are being erected at newspapers across North America, many of which have jumped on the bandwagon after seeing the New York Times do so. The latest salvo in the war of pro- and anti-paywall rhetoric comes from the Columbia Journalism Review, where writer Ryan Chittum rails against the “freehadists,” whose criticisms of paywalls he says are based on straw-man arguments. Is there no common ground at all to be had between paywall advocates and paywall skeptics?

Chittum makes it obvious where he believes the rhetorical goal-posts lie by opening with an anecdote about a Japanese soldier who was sent to the Philippines during World War II and told to “live on coconuts” if he had to. The CJR writer then compares paywall skeptics (including yours truly) to the Japanese army, and says their advice amounts to telling newspapers to live on coconuts. Later, Chittum says that their proposed treatment for the sick patient known as the newspaper industry is like recommending that doctors use incense and leeches instead of modern medicine.

Is this really the same as World War II?

The CJR writer also argues that members of the anti-paywall camp are “stuck in the mid-2000s, ignoring the events of the last few years,” as well as dismissing the innovative experiments conducted by newspapers like the Washington Post that don’t have paywalls. And he refers to various elements of the “catechism” that are the core beliefs of the “FONsters” or Future of News brigade — a group that includes author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis as well as media theorist Clay Shirky, journalism professor Jay Rosen, and Digital First Media staffer Steve Buttry. Says Chittum:

The war is over. The evidence is in. Newspapers, large and small, premium and not, gain additional revenue through subscriptions and lose little if anything in digital ads. The Allies have won.

newspaper boat

If nothing else, the strength of the rhetoric on both sides of this debate reinforces just how high the stakes are: the question of how newspapers and other traditional media outlets can (or should) pay their way in a predominantly digital age has gone from being a topic for light-hearted cocktail banter to a life-and-death issue for many companies. The market-leading New York Times is going through its fourth round of buyouts in five years, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is talking about a 30-percent cut in staff, billionaire Warren Buffett — as big a fan as newspapers have right now — is closing down titles, and some companies have gone bankrupt not just once but twice.

In that context, I can see why tempers might get a little heated. I spent some time recently with a senior digital executive at one of the largest newspapers in Canada and the frustration he felt was palpable: print advertising revenue continues to drop at a precipitous rate, digital ad revenue is not making up the difference, and mass layoffs are a painful thing at the best of times — especially when you know and admire all of those involved. So I am not unsympathetic to the CJR’s position, which seems to be that paywall critics are whistling past the graveyard.

Not should you charge, but whom — and for what?

As I’ve tried to explain, I am not against making people pay for things, including content — we charge people for plenty of content at GigaOM, including our proprietary research and our events. So I am in favor of charging readers: the big questions are which readers, and for what, and how. And I don’t think the answers are obvious.

Chittum and others assume that because I’m not a fan of blanket, one-size-fits-all paywalls around commodity news (for a number of reasons — both personal and professional — that I have outlined before) then I abhor any kind of paywall and wish newspapers would just give away all their content for free until they go down in flames. In other words, the only available options that are open for debate seem to be a blanket paywall or no subscription products at all.


But what about a membership model, the kind that some smaller sites such as Talking Points Memo or Pando Daily are experimenting with? This is something close to the “reverse paywall” or velvet-rope approach, where loyal readers are encouraged (and in some cases even volunteer) to pay for things. Do I have conclusive evidence that this could generate $100 million annually, the way the NYT paywall allegedly does? No, because no one has been doing it for long enough to prove that. But I will argue that it makes for a more rewarding relationship with your customers.

I don’t think anyone has a magic recipe that will return the newspaper industry to its former glory, for the simple reason that this is impossible. The news business has fundamentally changed, and returning to some mythical past is just not in the cards. Will charging people for the news help? It seems to have for some newspapers, although not for others. But that doesn’t mean we should give up looking for other solutions as well — and one of my main criticisms of media outlets with paywalls is that they seem to lose interest in pursuing other potential strategies.

What I would really like, however, is for everyone involved in this debate to be able to talk about the various options and alternatives without having the whole thing degenerate into a religious battle over who was wrong first, or who is more out of step with the times, or who resembles the Japanese Army in World War II. That doesn’t really help anyone, least of all the newspaper industry.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Nickola Che and Flickr users Zarko Drincic and Giuseppe Bognanni