Has putting up a paywall at The Guardian become a moral imperative rather than a choice?

Now that the Washington Post has erected a paywall (although it remains to be seen whether it will maintain that stance now that it is owned by Amazon (s amzn) CEO Jeff Bezos) the Guardian newspaper in Britain is probably the most high-profile newspaper that doesn’t have a pay model of any kind — apart from its iPad app and mobile app, both of which cost a fee. But some media observers are arguing that it almost has a duty to put up a paywall, in order to support the kind of journalism it has been doing around the NSA story.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian (please see disclosure below) told New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recently that the paper is not “the Taliban of free,” and that he is considering various forms of subscription or pay models. But during an interview on PBS NewsHour on the weekend — which is embedded below — Auletta and New York Times media writer David Carr both argued that the paper should put up a paywall sooner rather than later, since it continues to hemorrhage money. As Auletta put it:

“They have a kind of semi-socialist state, in that they are run by the Scott Trust. They lost 31 million pounds last year, and 44 million the year before — they’ve lost money for nine straight years. Can this really good newspaper, which does really good investigative reporting, survive in the digital age?”


Now is the perfect time, says Carr

David Carr, whose newspaper has what is probably one of the most successful subscription models in the industry (although it still hasn’t quite made up for the decline in print advertising), argued that since the Guardian has drawn so much attention for the stories by Glenn Greenwald about the NSA, now would be the perfect time for the paper to start charging its readers:

“I would argue that at this time when the eyes of the world are focused upon them, when they’re breaking story after story… wouldn’t it be a good time to to step toward the consumer and say, you love these stories, how about showing us a little sugar, how about we start charging?”

This discussion triggered a debate on Twitter following the interview, one that included a number of media-industry players — including John Paton, the CEO of Digital First Media and a strong critic of paywalls — but was mostly conducted between Financial Times columnist John Gapper and Emily Bell, who used to be in charge of digital operations at the Guardian and is now the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Bell started off by saying paywalls were a “short-term strategy,” and Gapper responded that, given the massive losses that the Guardian has suffered over the past several years, the newspaper should probably be worrying about its short-term strategy, or it might not be around to do any more of those world-changing stories:

Is a paywall antithetical to open journalism?

As the debate went on (a more complete version is embedded below), Bell argued that the kind of journalism the Guardian does has value that goes beyond just the financial cost of producing it — and Gapper continued to argue that the newspaper is in danger of running out of cash, which would prevent it from continuing that process. Alan Rusbridger, however, later replied that the paper is beating its own business plan, which was aimed at to reduce losses substantially:

rusbridger tweet

What’s interesting is that everyone involved in the discussion about the Guardian and paywalls, from Carr to Bell to Gapper, agrees that the newspaper’s journalism is valuable — but no one can seem to agree on how to pay for it. And in some cases the desire to pay for it via a subscription plan seems at odds with the very “open journalism” that Rusbridger and the Guardian have become famous for.

Carr, for example, talks about the community of readers that the newspaper has developed, and how it could convince them to pay for Guardian reporting — and yet, a paywall would effectively remove all of that great journalism from the vast majority of readers who are either unable or unwilling to pay for it. As Auletta said in the PBS NewsHour discussion:

“The Guardian has an ID as a liberal, anti-establishment newspaper, and that’s the community they’ve built around the world, and it’s been very successful. Can they build it if they have a pay model? I don’t know the answer to that.”

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Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom/paidContent.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Voronin76