Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Jan. 19, 2010, 10:49 a.m.

What thoughts about metered paywalls say about journalism, the public, and The New York Times

When I was trying to come up with a conclusion to my doctoral research on local journalism, I penned these thoughts:

The internet has deeply problematized local journalism’s vision of its public…Online, all publics appear fragmentary. There is always an element of the public that cannot be networked. There is always a fraction of this uncaptured public only a mouse-click away…Insofar as journalistic authority rests on its claim to give the public flesh, such a claim is no longer tenable — if it ever was. Insofar as local journalism’s image of the public is grounded in a vision that sees the public as a unitary, structural, or even interlocking entity that journalism can either confidently speak to or call into being, the authority of journalism has become deeply problematic.

The questions about newspaper paywalls, then, are more than simply economic questions. They are more than simply questions about “will the model work?” and “can we balance the ratio between clicks and advertising dollars that maximizes our paywall’s effectiveness?” There are also questions about how journalists see themselves, and whether they can live with the answers that a paywall provides.

In its article claiming that The New York Times was “close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, [through the kind of] the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe,” New York Magazine took a trip back in time to the days of TimesSelect, the Times’ last major attempt to charge readers for content:

The Times’ last experience with pay walls, TimesSelect, was deeply unsatisfying and exposed a rift between Sulzberger and his roster of A-list columnists, particularly Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd, who grew frustrated at their dramatic fall-off in online readership. Not long before the Times ultimately pulled the plug on TimesSelect, Friedman wrote Sulzberger a long memo explaining that, while he was initially supportive of TimesSelect, he’d been alarmed that he had lost most of his readers in India and China and the Middle East.

Its easy to attribute Friedman’s displeasure to vanity, and to some degree, it’s probably just that simple. But his attitude is a window into a larger newspaper mindset, one that sees the news provided by newspapers through reporting as creating the common language by which “the public” informs itself about issues of public relevance. As creating the public, as it were. It’s a world where “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is more than just an outdated slogan. It’s a world where the slogan is true.

I wrote last month that the emerging consensus about paid journalist content seems to be, “most people won’t pay anything for traditional journalism, but a few people will pay something, most likely for content they (1) care about and (2) can’t get anywhere else.” In other words, people will pay for niche content. Any sort of paywall — even the metered kind, like the Times is said to be proposing — is ultimately making a wager on the argument that it is enough of niche product that a wealthy enough niche of readers will pay for it. Putting up a meter represents the ultimate compromise between visions of news that are “mass” (“we want everyone to read this”) and niche (“we want to be unique enough that we will get unique people to pay”), because it ultimately amounts to a tax on the heavy users. (I have a sneaking suspicion that it is this compromise between the Times’ vision of itself as the crucible of the public and a vanity product that rich people will pay for that Jay Rosen was referring to when he tweeted that the alleged NYT plan “fit the mold” of previous attempts by the paper to strike the proper balance.)

In the days of advertising-funded journalistic content, there was no contradiction between the number of readers you had, your profitability, and the degree to which you could claim to print “all the news” that mattered. (This ignores, for the moment, the fact that even in the glory days of the industry business and circulation managers targeted particular demographic slices. But that was a decision largely hidden from editors and journalists, who could continue on under the illusion that they were writing for everyone.) These days, however, there is just such a distinction. In the world of the networked public sphere, putting up walls around your content ultimately moves you out of the center of the public network, which means you’re less linked to and less read. Putting up walls around your content means you can charge the niche but must sacrifice the illusion that you speak for and to everyone.

So there’s more to the New York Times’ decisions on meters and paywalls than just the question of whether the strategy will succeed economically. There are questions about how the internet has already changed the Times, and how the dawning world of niche-reader taxation will change journalists’ ideas about what they do and who they write for. And there are questions about how we ourselves see the “public” we are a part of. We live in a world where were our “nicheness” has never been more obvious, and one of the great questions in the years ahead is whether we are still capable of seeing ourselves as a part of something more. In order to do so, I think we need to radically rethink what we mean when we say the word “public.” Down with structural notions like “public spheres,” or even phrases “networked publics!”

These topics get us away from issues directly related to The New York Times, though, and might be better addressed in a future post.

POSTED     Jan. 19, 2010, 10:49 a.m.
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