I’ve written plenty about how foolish newspapers are to think that paywalls are any solution to their problems. I won’t repeat that argument (much) here, but I do want to note how disingenuous the recent announcements of paywalls have been.
For much of my career, one of the most consistent complaints of newspaper editors has been about writers who didn’t get to the point. But three paywall announcements by Gannett newspapers, the Tallahassee Democrat, Greenville News and St. George Spectrum, buried their leads so deep that readers didn’t get to the news until the second screen of the online version. All three announcements waited several paragraphs to get to the point: Starting July 1, online readers will have to pay to read their news. All three announcements spun the news with headlines that were misleading at best:
Spectrum plans print, online enhancements
The enhancement: Now you get to pay.
A new business model for our journalism (Greenville)
Actually, it’s an old model, one that has been tried and failed again and again since newspapers first went online and brought their old business model with them.
Today, we announce an historic change in how we do business (Tallahassee)
Historic as in old.
The Gannett announcements aren’t as shameless as this defense of the paywall Rupert Murdoch is placing around the Times and Sunday Times, once a proud London paper. The blog evokes a war correspondent risking death in Iraq — emotional, yes, but it has nothing to do with the Times’ plans to charge for content. Now, if the Times had no war correspondents and thought revenue from online readers would enable it to hire one …
Throw up the paywalls if you must. Go ahead and let emotional columnists insult your readers. But please, be honest and direct with your readers.
The editors and publishers who signed the Gannett announcements boast of the resources they commit to covering local news, without acknowledging they have cut those resources severely in companywide staff cuts in recent years. The Tallahassee and Greenville announcements prattle on at length about their newspapers’ history (appropriate, I guess, since they are clinging to a strategy rooted in the past).
None of the three announcements discloses that the papers are conducting an experiment for Gannett (in fact, none of the announcements even mentions Gannett). I’m pretty sure that the editors of those papers would expect their business writers to note such a fact in stories about any other business in town. The experiment was reported by the Salt Lake Tribune. Apparently Gannett thinks years worth of failed paid content efforts haven’t provided data. Perhaps Gannett executives were taking their mandatory companywide furloughs when the news came out that a similar experiment by Freedom Communications re-re-reaffirmed the futility of paywalls.
I could pick the stories apart at length: The Tallahassee announcement speaks of the survival of “the type of journalism that has sustained democracy since the American Revolution.” Depicting two centuries of journalism evolution as a single “type” is simply inaccurate. The Greenville announcement says the “new” model “reflects the advancements being made in the electronic world and the resulting redefinition of our news and information service.” Right or wrong, paywalls are a business decision, plain and simple. They have nothing to do with advancement in the electronic world, and they were first tried dozens of advancement ago.
And on and on. On many counts — buried leads, misleading headlines, accuracy, incomplete stories — these announcements are just bad journalism. Good luck getting people to pay for that.
Previous posts about paywalls
As noted above, I have explained in previous posts why paywalls are a bad idea:
Newspapers demand: “Gimme another ball!” (in which I foolishly promised, but wisely hedged the promise, not to write further on this issue)
Update: When I criticize people in this blog, I invite them to respond in comments. I did email the editor and publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat. But neither the Greenville nor St. George websites provided email addresses of the executives making the announcements (a questionable practice as well). I was able to use an online form to invite response from St. George. The Greenville website timed out on me when I tried to do the same. I’ll also email some Gannett executives I know. If you know a way to reach the editor or publisher in Greenville or the publisher in St. George, please let me know. It shouldn’t be this hard to reach leaders of a news organization.