Paywalls and Dinosaurs in Journalism

When it comes to online news, some organizations have simply never understood how to adapt. As history has shown those who fail to adapt, whether it be organizations or organisms, die out. The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star are, sadly, two such organizations. Recently the Globe and Mail put up a pay wall and announced that they would charge consumers for full access to the paper. The Toronto Star has announced that they will follow suit.

Obviously this means that many, many readers will soon be abandoning the Star. Ultimately it probably means that the Star's days are numbered. As much as I'll miss the Star though, columnist Rosie DiManno today explained, without intending to so, many of the reasons why the newspaper is failing in the digital age. In her column DiManno comes across as snarky, condescending and dismissive toward the Star's readers, commenters on stories, citizen journalists and essentially anyone who gets their news online or doesn't like paywalls.

So, I'll do my best to go blow by blow through DiManno's rant. (The entire thing is here for anyone who wants to read it before the paywall goes up.)

DiManno starts out by dismissing the 90% of commenters who didn't like the idea, claiming that that is a ratio that makes her feel optimistic. She also includes a Al Gore joke that was tired a decade ago (way to stay current).

Next DiManno states that "trolls want their forage for free" and that it costs "big bucks to put out a decent paper". Referring to the audience as trolls is never a wise (or classy) thing to do, but I'll skip that for now and move on to the money argument. That, after all, is the core issue behind the decision to put up a pay wall.

The truth is that readers have only ever supplied a small part of a newspaper's revenue. The money for virtually all media comes from advertising. The few dollars a week someone pays for a subscription or the dollar they drop at the newsstand is only a subsidy of the cost of printing and distributing the paper. If that were not true the Star's frequent giveaways of papers and "trial subscriptions" would be cost prohibitive. In a digital format though the cost of printing and distribution is negligible. What is missing from the equation is ad revenue. While the Star's website is replete with ads they have failed to garner enough money to meet the newspaper's costs. So, while sneering at those who want their news for free DiManno and the Star are actually asking readers to kick in a larger share of the paper's revenue than they did before there was an internet. The news has always, essentially, been free. What readers were paying for was printing and home delivery.

Then DiManno praises her paper and the way that it serves the community. She claims that the Star does "90% of the legwork" for local news and claims that they are "the source material". Presumably she means that the Star provides the original article that bloggers and other free media run with. It's an old and tired refrain from traditional media and is less and less true. Much of what appears in the Star comes from wire services. An increasing number of stories initially come from (free) social media. The Star gets wind of something on Twitter, does a little fact checking and then writes it up. As something of a news junkie I generally skip these stories. It's a pervasive failure of the traditional media to keep up. "Bringing you tomorrow what you were talking about yesterday" simply isn't much of a selling point. The Star does do some good local reporting and even investigative journalism however, pretending that the Star delivers the news and everyone else simply reposts or responds to it is either disingenuous or simply ignorant.

After the erroneous claims listed above Rosie admits to being a dinosaur, to having a dim view of online journalism, to the Star's inability to generate ad revenue online and then states that she doesn't read the comments section.
"Unlike the Globe, I don’t think newspapers should be in the business of having “a conversation’’ with readers. I write, you read (or not), and for those who wish to have a conversation among themselves, there are numerous ways to do that."

Fortunately DiManno has already admitted to being a dinosaur and, hopefully, is starting to make plans for her career outside of journalism. In 2012, in the internet age, all media is a two way conversation. Pretending that this is not the case puts you in the same class as those who said that talking (motion) pictures, television or rock & roll would never catch on.

This last point should be followed by DiManno's announcement that she was leaving the paper and moving to the country to raise alpacas. Sadly that's not what happened, she's only half way through. Next she attacks those who do not want a paywall, again, and then goes on to criticize "bloggers"
"Bloggers — citizen journalists some call them (not moi) — might do it for free, but that isn’t reliable reporting, nor held to demanding standards."

In the 21st century, on planet Earth, (a time and geography Rosie might want to become familiar with) there are a wide range of "blogs". Some of these are terrible but many of them are maintained by experienced, qualified journalists. Others blogs and web sites are written by people with expertise in their particular area of expertise and still others by people who are generally considered to be thoughtful and insightful in their opinions. That these people may not have worked for a news organization that existed prior to the internet takes nothing away from their credibility. There are hundreds of "bloggers" who I'd turn to long before I got around to Ms. DiManno's column. If there is some doubt about an online news story or a blogger's facts, it is not hard to check. There is this thing called Google that Rosie might want to check out. There is also Now Relevant which scans recent postings on a topic and Topix which indexes hundreds of news sites so you can double check someone's facts.

The next target of the column is commenters (again), after commenting on them for awhile Rosie says
"I won’t comment on people who need to see their views validated in published remarks. After all, it’s what I do for a living. But that’s the thing. It’s my job, my profession. You might not think highly of my work, granted. If an editor shares that view, however, the column is spiked. If that happens often enough, I’ll be out on the street. I’m not entitled to publication either."

So DiManno, because she has been given a job by the Toronto Star is entitled to her opinion and other people's opinions are less valid. However, DiManno's opinions are rarely insightful or interesting. The Occupy movement is, perhaps, the largest social movement since the 1960s. It has generated mountains of press, books and documentaries with opinions on all sides. What was Rosie's 2 cents? What were her insights into this global social movement? Basically, her thoughts amounted to "get off my lawn", a strange protest from a condo dweller about a public park. How would the world have lived without such insightful commentary? The reality, setting sarcasm aside, is that DiManno is never particularly insightful, knowledgeable or clever. She is a grumpy, entitled old lady (in mindset if not age) who believes she is exceptional in some way. Her style and the quality of her column would be better suited to the Toronto Sun (which can't hold a candle to most blogs, even those of a purely amateur nature).

So after insulting the vast majority of the Star's readers, those who comment on online stories, online journalists, bloggers and basically anyone with an opinion, and after making disingenuous claims about finances and the Star's journalistic prowess she closes with:
"The Star appreciates your patronage and fealty. We are grateful you allow us to come inside your home or office every day. I am beholden. It would be regrettable to part company because of a pay wall."

Presumably this is intended to placate anyone who might have been offended by her condescending attacks on virtually everyone. It does not. I was going to wait for the first of the year, but I've just paused in writing this to delete the Toronto Star from my feed reader. Will the Star be missed? Maybe a bit, but it's absence won't really be noticed. The Globe and Mail's absence from my daily news reading has had no impact at all.

What am I left with without the Star and the Globe?

For Toronto news I've got Torontoist, BlogTO, Toronto Standard, Spacing, the Grid, Xtra and Now.

For less local Canadian news I have the CBC, the National Post and a handful of other local papers and sites from around the country. For international news, in addition to those sites previously listed I have the BBC, Al Jazeera , NPR and others.

I also have a few dozen other special interest publications, magazines and blogs covering science, technology, culture, the arts, music, medicine, politics, economics and more. I have subscriptions to a handful of personal blogs by people whose opinions I value, I have extensive social media networks, sites like the aforementioned Topix and Now Relevant, and I have Google Alerts set up on topics of particular interests. (For those who don't know, Google Alerts sends me an email when something is written about a topic I've specified. ) All of this is without getting into online video and podcasts.

All in all I'm offered several hundred news stories a day, on topics I'm interested in, for free from organizations that seem to be thriving in the online world. How much does the absence of stories from the Star hurt me? How much will I notice its absence from those long lists of stories? The truth is, after a very short time, it won't really occur to me that it's gone or that it still exists.

Personally, my primary problem with paywalls is sheer annoyance. Most paywalls allow a person to access a certain number of articles per month for free and I certainly know how to bypass a paywall if it comes to that but the sheer volume of news I screen daily makes paywalls an unacceptable nuisance. Today, for example, about 800 stories showed up in my reader. Out of those I opened about 50 and read, in their entirety, about 20. Screening so many stories forces me to work quickly and opening an article only to read a "please give us money" notice is a waste of my time. Even in cases where I rarely run into the "wall", I delete feeds from any organization that implements one.

The Star has made a poor choice. They have decided to put a barred gate between their content and online readers. The world of online media is already overcrowded, there is simply too much information to try to take in on a given day and the vast majority of it is paid for by advertising and free to online audiences. To decide that you are going to charge for what everyone else is giving away, you first have to strongly believe that you are offering something that absolutely no one else comes close to and you have to be able to convince a great many other people. I do not believe that the Toronto Star really does the former nor do I believe that it has done the latter.

It is a rough time for newspapers. A hundred years ago the only competition they faced was from a few other local papers. Radio and television came along to compete for news audiences and then the internet happened. In the current news marketplace individuals are free to choose from sources all over the world. Newspapers have to continually struggle to get an audience's attention and to be included in each readers list of 'trusted sources'. However asking your audience to pick up the tab for the segment of the audience you've lost is a move of pure desperation.

The likely result will be a decrease in both web traffic and print sales. Some people, out of pure loyalty, will decide to pay up but few will pay for both the online and print editions of the paper. Many of the people who still get the physical paper will offset the cost of the paywall by dropping their offline subscriptions and many will abandon the Star entirely. As the numbers decline so will the Star's importance. The Star, with smaller circulation, will slowly start to become less important and influential. Refusing an interview with the Star will have fewer consequences. People with a newsworthy story to tell will be less likely to go to the Star first. It will become more difficult for the Star to land quality advertisers and more difficult to add talented people to their staff. These things, in turn, risk diminishing the quality of the Star and driving readership down even further. In short the paywall could easily result in a downward spiral that kills the Star entirely.

The paywall is not a solution to anything, it is a Hail Mary pass thrown after the clock has run out and no amount of whinging by dinosaur columnists will change the outcome.
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