Just a couple of years ago, although it feels like a lot longer, the media world was embroiled in something like a gigantic family argument over the idea of whether it was good idea to charge readers for news online. Among aficionados, this was known as the “paywall debate.”
The angry fracas was part of a much larger argument about the future of news itself. On one side, a new generation of technology-centered journalists trumpeted a new, decentered news system of networks, news shared and even gathered by volunteers, a more, informal, “iterative,” approach (posting news now and fixing mistakes along the way), less concern about separating business and editorial functions, and, of course, free online news for all. The other side, my side, which resisted the name “old guard,” argued about the importance of news institutions and professional news-gathering, traditional standards (or many of them), long-form storytelling, reporter impartiality, strict separation of the news “church” and the business-side “state,” and paywalls. (One thing we old guarders did not insist on, by the way, was the survival of print.)
When I wrote critically about what I called the “future of news (FON) consensus” in the CJR in the fall of 2011, the technologists views were in ascendance and predicting, if not hastening, the death of newspapers. The intra-journalism debate that has unfurled over the last couple years has been heated and often angry, sometimes surprisingly enlightening, sometimes deeply stupid.
But now, it shows signs of abating. I see a consensus taking hold, one that, all in all, is much, much healthier for public-interest reporting than the old one. Is this inside media baseball? Most definitely! But the reality is that such debates can have an alarmingly large impact on the actual news the public will get. They matter. What was damaging about the old consensus, particularly, was its fealty to the god of clicks — digital ads revenue generated by high traffic volumes, which, in turn, require high quantities of new posts, often of indifferent quality. This side also believed that newspapers, under no circumstances, should charge readers for news online. This created what I called the “Hamster Wheel” effect in American newsrooms, speed for speed's sake, volume without thought, and a downward quality spiral of local news. The problem with the free-content model isn’t that long form investigations and accountability reporting isn't possible. It's that its incentives run in the opposite direction. It is now generally understood that this belief has had disastrous effects on the newspaper industry, the backbone of American journalism (albeit an increasingly frail one), and is still doing damage in some quarters.
I'm speaking for myself here, not as the voice of CJR. But here’s what I see as the new FON consensus, or perhaps better, the Present of News (PON) consensus, since this looks like not so much as where we’re going as where we are:
Consensus #1: Free online news is a poor fit for legacy news organizations. Basically, the paywall side, the old guard, won this one. The New York Timesdigital subscription breakthrough in 2011 was initially dismissed as a unique case (just as the digital subscription success of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times was similarly dismissed a few years earlier. But that argument has eroded as digital subscription meters have gone up successfully around the world. That variants of the model have been adopted by digitally native sites like Andrew Sullivan's, Politico and even Capital New York further illustrates that paywalls have turned some kind of corner. Determined attempts by Advance Publications, controlled by the Newhouse family, to shoehorn once-great news organizations like the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Cleveland Plain Dealer, into the free-ad model have gone sideways, providing a grisly counter-example. And mostly, it's the realization both that newspapers' digital ad growth, the great hope of free-news, has hugely disappointed, and thatTimes-style metered subscription systems have shown they don't even hurt digital traffic much anyway. You can both subscriptions and keep your traffic, and whatever you can earn from ads. Digital subscriptions, properly deployed, are free money.
Consensus #2: Paywalls are just a tool, not a panacea, a strawman we've had to argue against for years. While paywall revenue is often meaningful, and at places like the Times and the FT, it has actually helped offset perilous declines in print ad revenue, at most places it is a helpful revenue stream that is not enough to offset total revenue declines, which set the stage for a downward spiral of newsroom cuts and quality deterioration.
Consensus #2a: Paywalls impose a quality imperative. For there to be any kind of growth story, the content behind a paywall cannot be rote newspapering. There is a reason that Gannett, which has, as Ryan Chittum puts it, “a well-earned and long-established reputation for high margins and poor quality,” has seen its digital strategy hit a wall. After initial success in selling print subscribers on a digital product (basically a stealth price increase), it has had little success selling new digital-only subscriptions on the merit of its content. By contrast, the Minneapolis Star Tribune remains a quality paper and has had early success with digital subs, showing 33 percent growth despite a price increase. Paywalls around middling content don't wash.
Consensus #3: Digitally native news organizations are free to charge or not charge and can do pretty much whatever they want. The subscription issue pertains basically to newspapers, still the backbone (albeit, an increasingly frail one) of American journalism. Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, and other operations rely on huge volumes of traffic — usually generated by readers sharing on Facebook and other social media platforms — to drive digital ad revenue. While usually mocked for their click-bait content (“Drake Rocked His Yarmulke And Vest Again For His Re-Re-Bar Mitzvah On 'SNL'” — BuzzFeed, January 18), they also do some news-gathering and long-form stories of high quality. Given that their competition in digital ads is overwhelmingly dominated by a few non-news organizations, e.g. Google and Facebook, any journalism the new organizations generate is a net addition to the news. One interesting question is how much of the quality stuff these sites can produce. Major newspapers still crank out long-form stories by the hundreds and even thousands annually, although at a dramatically reduced rate from a decade ago.
Consensus #4: The traditional news story — not the tweet, blog post, or word cloud (remember those?) — retains its primacy in American journalism. I know this because two of the most thoughtful representatives of the technologically centered view, author Clay Shirky and Columbia's Emily Bell, said as much in a justly celebrated 2011 report, “Post-Industrial Journalism,” co-authored with Christopher Anderson. “What is of great moment is reporting on important and true stories that can change society,” they wrote. And I agree. This doesn't mean that other news forms won't continue to grow in prominence — video news in particular is on the rise. But I suggest they will continue to supplement the story.
Consensus #5: The utility of crowd-sourced journalism — volunteers gathering or sorting through news — is real and so far really limited. Non-professionals have provided major contributions in breaking news situations like mass protests and disasters (the Arab Spring, the Fukushima nuclear accident) and sorting through masses of data (ProPubica's “Dollars for Docs” project enabled readers to sort through millions of payments from the pharmaceuticals industry to doctors). The limits were exposed when readers on the Reddit social media site identified the wrong people as suspects in last year's Boston Marathon Bombings. Of course, the New York Post did, too, so crowd-sourcing doesn't have a monopoly on screw-ups, by any means. Still, while a few years ago, network theorists held out great hopes for what they called peer production in journalism, the bulk of news-gathering will be done by people who are paid to do it, even as experiments in crowd-sourcing continue and its potential remains untapped but large. As Jay Rosen wrote in a sweet, short post last year on where competing journalism philosophies agree and disagree: “Bloggers and citizen journalists cannot fill the gap.”
Consensus #6: Whatever one thinks about the current news eco — better, worse, richer, thinner, more democratic, dumber — coverage of local and state government is a disaster area. Metropolitan newsrooms that once covered police departments, school districts, taxing authorities, and the powerful in their communities, look like they've been hit by a neutron bomb; the desks are there, but the people are gone. Major beats like the environment and education go uncovered. As an important Federal Communications report put it in 2011, “an abundance of media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting…. While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.” Amen.
These aren't the only things that might be said to have found consensus. And maybe I'm wrong; Maybe, there is no consensus at all. (I don't think the church-state issue has been fully worked out, for instance, though traditional news organizations seem to be reaffirming the importance of clear boundaries.)
But unless you think the current news environment is fine as it is — and if you do, zeit gezundt — it's high time for technologists, traditionalists, and the public to find one, and then find ways to build on it.
This post orginally appeared at Columbia Journalism Review and is posted here with permission.
Dean Starkman is an Investigative Fund fellow at The Nation Insititute.