By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Coughing up (or not) for online content

I have been in the throes of rewriting my book the past few weeks, which is why blogging has been sporadic. But let me pause to offer a reading suggestion — Howard Owens’ 10 arguments against paywalls for online news, published yesterday by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Particularly good is No. 9: “Paywalls don’t address the fundamental issues facing newspapers.”

Although I’m not as resolutely opposed to paywalls as Owens, he lays out the arguments against them intelligently and forcefully.

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  1. James Craven

    Having read Mr. Owens’ “How David Simon is wrong about paywalls,” I can only suggest that while his assertions are neither intelligent nor forceful, they are certainly the declarations of yet another pseudo-journalist hoping to make a living for themselves while destroying the idea of objective journalism.

    From his spurious claim that the New York Times is a poor model to his faulty math which has serious investigative journalism costing from $50 million to $100 million to his construct that the wrong people are pushing paywalls to, finally, the idea that paywalls do not address the fundamental problems facing print journalism.

    To address only a few: The idea that any newspaper needs a $50 million-plus budget for serious investigative work is too ludicrous to argue. Even the smallest daily newspaper can do serious work by allocating one or more reporters on a part-time basis. Having won awards for investigative journalism while employed by newspapers with less than 20,000 circulations, I believe I can safely say that I know of what I speak.

    On his point that the wrong people are pushing paywalls, I can only submit my own history of writing for paywalls back in the late 1990’s while part of in Minneapolis, MN. During that time we won two awards from the National Press Club and a Sigma Delta Chi award for our work. At the time I also wrote for the need for paywalls and the danger of allowing news to be dispensed for free by both professional and amateur journalists, the former because professionalism needs to be paid, the latter because news is not a place for hobbyists.

    Finally, while paywalls do not address the fundamental problems facing print journalism, it is certainly a start. Other problems such as the intrusion into professional news gathering of amateur journalists willing to give their work away for the chance to garner a few paid sponsors; news agencies dependent on outside grants, aggregators who steal the work of journalists, and corporations more concerned with obscene profit and executive bonuses than serving their communities will have to wait for another day.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @James: Owens has worked as a journalist and a news executive for many years. Why is he a “pseudo-journalist”?

  2. James Craven

    In interesting question. Certainly Mr. Owens has had some experience as a print reporter, but by his own biography his experience is by and large online, primarily in a webmaster-type postition. That is to say, that he took the work of journalists and put it online.

    He did this for several organizations, including Gatehouse Media. While there his push toward providing free news was known and reported on, even by yourself. He seemed at the time to have little respect for the working journalist, and I see little difference today.

    (Full Disclosure: I did work for Gatehouse Media in the past, but not while Mr. Owens was head of the digital division.)

    He can run The Batavian and continue to push for endeavors that will line his own pocket (moving legal notices online)while providing the eventless news for which his online news service (please do not call it an online “paper”) appears to provide. He can do all of that with nearly every byline ending with the surname Owens. He can do it because when you are giving something away, you do not have to worry about doing journalism. You can just do pseudo-journalism.

    I do not know the exact future of journalism, or whether print or online is a part of it. I do know that free journalism is the delivery of what you paid for.

  3. Andy Koppel

    To be blunt, I find this discussion of paywalls staggeringly disingenuous — and have said so on this blog in the past. Every time someone denounces the efforts of “tradition-bound” newspapers to make a viable business, I wonder if they would subject themselves to their own criteria. Furthermore, I never see realistic, concrete suggestions, just platitudes about finding new ways to generate revenue.

    I have worked — and continue to work — for software vendors who sell to the newspaper industry, both print and online. I am also a subscriber and pay happily (yes happily) for a full subscription to the NYT and a digital subscription to the Globe.

    News is NOT journalism. I want to read the Times, not the cheapest Internet alternative. We pay for everything else because there are costs involved to the vendors and value provided to the consumer. Why is this so hard to accept?

    I applaud Mr. Craven for his fierce defense of these precepts.

  4. L.K. Collins

    I don’t see where there is a requirement for a good journalist to be a “professional journalist”.

    It’s the quality of his work that counts.

    Owens makes some interesting points in is discussion.

    One of the things that appears to be missing in the attacks on Owens and his Bavarian is that he seems to be making a fairly good go at making his publication relevant to his community, relevant enough to be able to continue to operate with a level of consistency.

    The problem with other segments of the news business is that their revenue streams are insufficient to support the types of journalism they had two years ago, let alone ten or twenty or fifty.

    With the heavy investments in IT systems to support both the dead-tree and on-line editions, I doubt seriously that overhead for a news organization is less than 100% of salary.

    Offsets for reduced press operations may relieve the on-lne overhead figures, but 100%+ overhead is a tough nut to pay off at $9.99/month/subscriber.

    I also noticed a certain lack of civility in the comments sections, leading me to believe that the “professional” journalist isn’t as professional as is being claimed.

    Agree or disagree with Howard’s thesis, he did a good job of outling the issues.

    Congrats, Howard.

    (If you opened a publication in my area, you’d get my subscription. I see you as in the first wave of the newest incarnation of a viable news outlet.)

  5. I just returned from covering an event involving a group of third, fourth and fifth graders. After I finished my pictures, one of the kids ask, “are we going to be in the paper?” and another quickly said, “no, The Batavian” I said, “yes, The Batavian,” and the whole class cheered.*

    And that’s not an isolated incident. That kind of enthusiasm for The Batavian is a daily occurrence.

    I’ll take our actual, verifiable proof of the impact we’re having in the community, both in journalism and as a business, over what one million James Cravens might have to say.

    *And, None of those kids will ever pay for news, print or online.

  6. James Craven

    “And the whole class cheered.”

    Well, I guess I must start reading The Batavian. Any news agency that can cause third, fourth and fifth grade children to break into cheers, must be very entertaining given the emotional and validating conversation (your quotes) presented to the reader.

    I must admit it is comforting to read of such verifiable proof (and presented in such an understated way) while negating the use of any hyperbole or embellishment. The children, parents, and residents of Batavia (and Hamelin) seem to be in good hands.

  7. James, you’re a peach. Keep on keeping on.

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