10 reasons why a paywall isn’t the answer

For anyone who thinks paywalls are the way ahead for newspaper companies, read this evisceration of the idea by Howard Owens. A brief excerpt from his post at CJR.

A paywall is reactionary. It represents a mindset that says there’s nothing wrong with our journalism or our business approach. It is also an admission of failure at building a real online news business.

The basic notion behind a paywall is, “Journalism is expensive, therefore people should pay for it.” The notion ignores evidence to the contrary and locks in a mindset that believes the way we’ve always done it is the only way to do it. Paywall advocates are not innovators, and if you’re not an innovator in the fast-moving Digital Age, you’re dead.

One of the real dangers of the current paywall schemes isn’t that they won’t produce revenue; it’s that they will become the proverbial golden handcuffs, producing too much revenue to abandon but not enough to accomplish what advocates hope: save journalism.

Full disclosure: He is overly generous in his praise of me in reason #3.

A core newspaper value: The strong voice of the editorial page

Yesterday, Andria Krewson and I had a good email exchange about Amendment One, newspapers, editorial pages and the influence of written opinion. She writes about her findings this afternoon in CJR. As usual, Andria does an excellent job researching and analyzing N.C. journalism. (Full disclosure: she quotes me.)

Among the things I told her was my fear that newspapers, including editorial pages, were quickly losing their influence and impact (which I wrote about here and here). I have no research on how a town’s newspaper editorial position correlates with the area’s vote on Amendment One. It would be an interesting study for some journalism student.

Editorial pages are a destination in newspapers. Strong, fist-pounding opinions are a must. (What is there to lose?) So is using every tool at their disposal to engage the community. (Video, anyone?) I know how hard it is when you don’t have enough people or technology. Times of desperation — that’s where we are, isn’t it? — require focusing on your fundamental values. Strong community leadership provided by the voice of the editorial page should be a fundamental value of every newspaper. That means, provide appropriate resources to make it a treasured, nourishing destination.

The importance/irrelevance of news ombudsmen

If you aren’t a publisher or the editor, is there a better position than ombudsman to improve the reader experience?

As Dan Kennedy points out, an ombudsman has the time, the access and the platform, to say nothing of the independence to work for the reader, explaining the paper, holding it accountable, and pushing the rock up the hill.

So, why isn’t the public editor of the New York Times more active and engaged? He writes a weekly newspaper column, but that includes a reader response column. His last original column was Dec. 18 about the Penn State scandal. He has a blog, but has only posted three entries since September, and he doesn’t engage readers in the comments that I can tell.

I think this is a job I want.

What is there to write about? A quick visit to Romenesko provides one answer. The exegesis of the best NYT correction ever? Status of the sale of the N.Y. Times Regional Group. And that was just Friday afternoon.

As I thought about this, I wandered over to the Washington Post to see what its ombudsman was writing about. Patrick B. Pexton seems to be more active, but, geez, in his most recent writing, he concludes that the Washington Post is innovating too quickly. The Post may be the only newspaper in the past 15 years that has been accused of that. (Given the demographic of newspaper readers, many of them complain about change. When I was editor of the News & Record, we routinely got complaints from readers annoyed that we would send readers online for more information. “I don’t have a computer, and don’t plan on getting one!” they would say.)

When I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the Times’ public editor had made himself  irrelevant, Craig Silverman pointed me to an outstanding column he wrote for CJR on how ombudsmen can make themselves essential. I would add two points — active engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and an expanded section on involving a news organization’s entire staff in talking with readers.

(Update: Dan Kennedy later tweeted: “Rule No. 6: Don’t write stuff like this,” referring to the Pexton column about innovation.)

I know why more papers don’t have ombudsmen; they would rather have a reporter than yet another commentator. Years ago, the idea was that editors should serve the role of public editor, but you don’t find many editors acting that way. It’s a shame. Serving as ombudsmen at two of the most important agenda-setting news organizations in the country could be a vital role helping both journalists and readers.