How Journalism Can Thrive Forever

One of my favorite podcasts, Slate Money, had an interesting segment during their latest episode about the economics of the New York Times. According to a recent economic analysis by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Michigan, the “paywall” introduced by the Times in 2011 has so far proven to be a success. This paywall allows anyone to read a limited number of free articles per month — originally 20, now 10 — before needing to pay a monthly fee to read unlimited articles. The researchers show that so far the Times has gained one dollar in digital subscription fees for every 13 cents it lost in online ad revenues, and has also staved off print subscription declines to boot.

Oldsters like myself will recall that the Times offered a precursor to the paywall in 2005, called TimesSelect, which eventually disappeared. (Part of the trouble with Select is that it hived off opinion pieces from the rest of the paper, which was a bridge too far). For several years the Times was completely free to read online after that, before the paywall returned. The success of Paywall 2.0 at the Times, if nothing else, has revealed that there is a market for paid up-market journalism.

The question, as the Slate Money panelists discussed, is whether the Times experience can be replicated elsewhere. The Times is a unique product with a storied history. But the demise of TimesSelect shows that even a premier legacy is no guarantee of success in the digital news economy. Furthermore, even at the Times revenue from print ads continues to be essential. Print still pays the bills even as it draws fewer eyeballs. Assuming that print papers continue their inevitable decline into non-existence, it may prove impossible for even the Times to survive the 21st century. This depends, among other things, on whether the saved costs from no longer operating printing presses are greater than the lost revenue from no longer running print ads. As one podcast panelist said, “If the New York Times can’t make it, nobody can.”

If the news media as we know it does disappear it will be a tremendous loss. Whatever its ills and failings, a free and independent media is an essential ingredient of a functioning civil society. As Paul Starr pointed out in a cogent New Republic essay eight years ago, corruption rises whenever the media is weak. Starr wrote this in 2009, when the major concern for media figures was how to navigate economy turmoil in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2017, now that a sitting US president has declared that the media is the enemy of the people, the stakes are much higher still. Senator John McCain was correct that such words are the mark of a dictator in waiting.

Given these newly raised stakes, it is more important than ever to support and grow free and independent media. Here are three considerations for promoting a robust media environment going forward — for the New York Times and for everyone else.

  1. Remember that the values of journalism need defending, not the established business model. My professional training is as a librarian, and we have versions of this conversation at every professional meeting. Whether or not people enter a physical library is not as important as whether they are able to locate and interpret credible information regarding the topic they are pursuing. The “business model” of libraries has long been the information desk and reference desk. These can fade completely, and the core values that drive librarianship will remain. Similarly, the highest values of journalism will always to report the news without fear or favor, and to follow the truth wherever it leads. Of course journalists need to develop sustainable business models in order to keep the lights on. But it is all too easy (librarians do it too) to seek to replicate business models of the past, even when external conditions have radically changed. The values of journalism are worth supporting, no matter what, and journalists must truly believe this.
  2. Recognize that everyone can be a journalist. This is by now familiar advice from people such as Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, and Joshua Marshall. Marshall coined the phrase “people formerly known as the audience” to emphasize that ubiquitous online distribution means that anyone can be a reporter. This does not mean that everyone will report well, of course. Even so the days in which officially credentialed journalists control the news conversation have long since ended. To my mind “elite journalists” get a bad rap — in some cases this is a lazy way to slur people who carefully gather and present facts. But this perception is real and potent, and the gulf is wide between most news consumers and most news creators. To close this gap news organizations should seek to partner with people in every locality who exhibit an interest in fair and fearless reporting, paying particular attention to diversity. Just like a librarian can work anywhere, the “news room” should be anywhere. This effort must not extend to working with individuals who would only use media resources to further their own propaganda, but everyone else is welcome. The goal is to increase the proportion of people with a direct stake in the success of legitimate media, now and in the future.
  3. Experiment with creative funding models. Indeed, bills must be paid. Starr’s 2009 piece mentions philanthropic efforts to support journalism. My guess is that the long-term future will involve a combination of significant philanthropy, targeted ads, monthly subscriptions a la the Times paywall, and premium services that allow for mining news reports as a tool of further analysis. The possibilities are limitless, once the mental shackles of attempting to mimic prior business models are removed.

The above ideas are offered in full awareness that the economic and ideological pressures facing journalism are intense and unceasing. It may well be that, 50 years from now, the “news” has dwindled into nothing more than infantile and titillating propaganda. (Some would say that is the case already, but such nihilism is part of the problem). Let us hope not. We all benefit from thoughtful journalism, whatever our politics or philosophical inclinations.