The 10 best moments from Howard Owens-David Simon debate about paywalls

Columbia Journalism Review
Howard Owens wrote a piece for CJR arguing that David Simon doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says newspapers need to throw up paywalls. His beef concerns what Owens calls a “recent piece for CJR” (which when Simon sent it to me the day before I called an “email” but whatever), and he goes on to list 10 arguments against Simon’s paywall logic. Compelling stuff, a contribution to this great debate of how we’ll pay for journalism, but the real news from this piece is that comments sections aren’t completely useless: Simon, Press+ cofounders Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, Tracy Record of West Seattle Blog, Matt Terenzio of Journal Register and lots of other interesting folks have a full-on, non-tweeted debate. It’s awesome!

The tweets came, of course (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4), but as a tribute to Simon’s full-throated defense of print journalism, this online journalist hereby aggregates some of the debate’s better moments as a listicle.

1. Simon takes issue with Owens’ estimate of what metro coverage will cost

A $50 million metro budget? A $100 million metro budget? My god, where are you getting these figures. … At its height in the early eighties, the Baltimore Sun — paying reporters a base salary of about $45,000 each — had between 55 and 60 reporters. At $100,000 per position currently, such a staff could be assembled for under $6 million.

2. Record discusses one area legacy news organizations might cut instead of axing reporters

The bottom line about the bottom line remains that large news organizations have to cut expenses. That doesn’t mean cut reporters. It means middle management. I was a six-figure-earning middle manager before we went into business for ourselves, and I’m the first person to tell you that my job was absolutely dispensable, despite the fact I’ve always been a tireless, tenacious, valuable employee … I should have been repurposed into actual content generation. Now, I am!

3. Brill argues for Press+’s meter system

None of our papers has lost ad revenue and all have gained moderate to large amounts of new circulation revenue while not losing any of their voice in the community — and while instantly stabilizing their print franchises by eliminating the completely free alternative.

4. Tim Windsor points to a weakness in the meter system

Will paywalls work in local markets like Baltimore? I’d argue that we’ve yet to see a strong case in support of that. Even The Sun’s own paywall seems ambivalent about the effort; you have to read 15 stories a month before the pay wall is invoked. At that rate, more than 80% of The Sun’s monthly traffic won’t have any idea that there’s a wall, let alone any ways for the reader to support the paper’s and site’s important local reporting.

5. Simon wishes for a cable-TV-like system

If there is the digital prose equivalent of Comcast that would allow me to purchase the metro and state coverage of the Baltimore Sun, the national coverage of the Washington Post and the New York Times, international coverage from other places including The Guardian or The Jerusalem Post, financial coverage from the FT or WSJ, or even the newspaper where my parents live, or where I am going to spend a summer, or….if all of these products could be bundled — and because they were NOT being sent for free to wire services or news syndicates from which they can be plucked by aggregators — I would pay a reasonable sum to access all online. Especially if their content could be improved using that fresh revenue stream. I want that stuff. Bad.

6. Owens challenges Brill and Crovitz on Press+

OK, Steven, you want original reporting? Why don’t you go completely transparent. Put online (why let me have all the fun) all of your data: Each site’s set up fee, subscription rev share, number of subscribers, churn rate, cost of acquisition, before and after page views, revenue break downs before and after, retention rate, etc.

I bet you won’t do it because all you and Mr. Crovitz would rather sell snake oil with blind, unsubstantiated assertions.

7. Simon acknowledges the limits of one person’s typing abilities

first thing we pay for with online revenue is a big, careful copy desk.

8. Simon calls Terenzio “dawg”

Don’t run off because I’ve offended you already, dawg.

9. Anna Tarkov makes an interesting argument

[D]o you believe that in this day and age, a large enough number of people are convinced that they need the coverage their metro daily is providing? … Most assuredly, there are people who feel that way. But I don’t believe there are enough people who do and if you throw up a paywall, they will simply go without. It’s not that hard to give up something you never cared about to begin with.

10. A spam comment ends the discussion (for now)

It is so very Mind Blowing and amazing Blog .

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  • Chris Howell

    The Orlando Sentinel online just set up a paywall for articles. I’m
    a bit miffed but not devastated. I’ll certainly get along fine without it. So
    the Sentinel went from barely relevant to irrelevant. I’m not hearing
    any buzz in the community about this. Those who have hit their article limit
    don’t know about the paywall and those who have are probably like me.  I’ve just moved on to Google news or Yahoo news
    or one of the local TV station websites for area news. I wonder why all the
    local reporters continue to waste their time tweeting article links when people
    like me can’t read them? I’ll still visit their site for a couple of blogs but
    otherwise, so long Sentinel.