Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!
— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
This week the conversation about pay walls for news sites online — a/k/a the “how do we make them pay for news?” question — has reached a feverish pitch. In what may well be remembered as the apex of the ostrich argument, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi maintains, in the American Journalism Review, that newspapers should either “build that paywall high” or — this is where the ostrich beak burrows far below daylight — quit the Web entirely.
“Downplaying the Web, or dropping it altogether and going back to print only, looks not just smart for the struggling newspaper industry, but potentially lifesaving,” Farhi writes.
Never mind that newfangled printing-press thing! Can’t you see we’ve got scribes to support?
A number of exasperated media observers who think the paywall is a bad idea but who have grown tired of the endless debate are echoing Farhi’s cry: If you think it’s such a great idea, they’re saying to publishers, shut up already and just start charging.
For the thorough explanation of why the strategy is doomed, just read Alan Mutter’s post today: “Publishers consistently have told me that they fear they could lose 75% or more of their traffic and banner revenue if they started to charge for content.” My experience at Salon –where we briefly went “all pay” after 9/11, when the ad market disappeared — suggests that even this number is optimistic.
I’m exasperated too, but I won’t join the “put up or shut up” crowd because I’d hate to see the further ghettoization of oldfashioned journalistic expertise on the Web. New models for news are sprouting on the Web every day. The journalism profession has a wealth of expertise and knowhow; the support of a dying industry’s paychecks will continue to dwindle, but the expertise can still be transmitted to a new generation of journalism ventures. That won’t happen If major media outlets wall themselves off from the Web. They will cut off not only their revenue but also their chance to influence the practice of journalism as it evolves online.
The alternative to “go ahead, build your wall” is for newspaper companies to accept that monopoly profits will not return and cannot be replaced. (Yes, I know that accepting such a reality is difficult and unlikely.) Instead, begin exploring new business models by starting from the revenue side and seeing what sort of complementary journalism can be supported.
John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, has taken this notion to heart and called for ideas and proposals. Brainstorming rather than masonry — what a concept!