The Guardian struggles with its free digital model

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.03.43 AMMedia observer Michael Wolff writes in USA Today about the difficulties facing any news organization that seeks to make all or most of its money from digital advertising. His example is The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper to which he and I both used to contribute.

The Guardian is proudly, aggressively digital. Its print edition is little more than a vestigial limb (especially outside the UK), and its executives refuse to implement a paywall. The result, Wolff says, is that the trust set up to run The Guardian in perpetuity is running out of money. As I wrote last week for WGBHNews.org, relying on digital advertising is a dubious proposition because its very ubiquity is destroying its value. Wolff puts it this way:

The reality is that the Guardian’s future is almost entirely dependent on advertising revenue in a medium where the price of a view heads inexorably to an increment hardly above zero. But the hope remains that, in ways yet to be imagined, some innovation will make large profits suddenly possible.

Digital paywalls are helping to bolster the bottom line at papers like The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe—but they are hardly a solution to the larger problems the newspaper business faces. Print advertising still brings in most of the revenue, but it’s on the wane.

Last week I visited The Philadelphia Inquirer, a major metro similar to the Globe that was recently donated to a nonprofit foundation. It’s a promising ownership model. The Inquirer still needs to break even, which is no sure thing. But local control, no pressure to meet the expectations of shareholders, and the possibility of some grant money being raised to pay for reporting projects may bring stability to the Inquirer after years of chaos. (The nonprofit New Haven Independent was the main focus of my 2013 book, The Wired City.)

One thing they’re not talking about at the Inquirer is free digital, even though the Inquirer and its sister paper, the tabloid Daily News, compete with a vibrant (though small) free digital-only project called Billy Penn, whose modest budget is paid primarily by sponsoring events. Though I remain skeptical about paywalls for reasons I laid out in my WGBH piece, the one thing I’m certain of is that the money has to come from somewhere.