There has already been volumes written about the New York Times paywall, but of all those posts, the one that most captured my interest was David Cohn‘s post over at MediaShift entitled “Why the New York Times‘ Pay Model is Similar to NPR and Spot.Us.” In it, Cohn examines what the meaning of a paywall is when it is so clearly not about access to the content.
“The NYTimes.com subscription plans are not enough to sustain the entire organization, but it is a new revenue stream that didn’t exist before. You can call it a ‘pay wall’ or a ‘metered wall’ but, again, I think we should call a duck a duck. This is a donation system, plain and simple. News organizations don’t want to refer to ‘metered walls’ as ‘donations,’ and I understand why. I’m happy to stroke their hair as they cry into their ink-stained hands. We can call it whatever they want, but it’s a donation because there is no HARD reason for anyone to pay it other than because they want to or are too uninformed about how to get around it.”
In this way, Cohn argues, the new pay scheme for the New York Times resembles something akin to NPR not the Wall Street Journal. And, he argues, it could morph into something like the crowd-funded Spot.Us model that Cohn himself founded. If we extrapolate David Cohn’s argument, what he hints at but never says is that the Times new paywall may begin to blur the lines between what we traditionally think of as the revenue models for nonprofit and for-profit news.
Back in 2009 two fundraisers from Yale University wrote an op-ed arguing that the New York Times should become a nonprofit and fund itself through an endowment. Not long after that Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced legislation that would have allowed major metro dailies to transition to a nonprofit model. That was also the year my organization Free Press released a major report on public policy and journalism which argued for new new ownership models and even new tax policies that could encourage innovation and better quality journalism.
While there has been some exploration of a “low-profit” tax status for news, most of the debate in the future of news conversation has been around either 1) how to we bring in more money in for-profit news and 2) how we build sustainable nonprofit news organizations. Perhaps some of the answers we are looking for are in-between the questions we are asking. Instead of either/or, how can we better mix the qualities of these two models to create something new – a hybrid, a mashup, a remix – a news organization for our new age?
As Cohn notes, the Times paywall is one sign that news organizations are trying to find a productive third space in the borderlands between firm definitions. I would argue that the rise of journalism collaborations is another sign of this trend. In an age where there is no one-size fits all solution for sustainable journalism, these partnerships hint at a number of hybrids, not just for/nonprofit.
- Collaborations help for-profits reinvest in expensive journalism projects by sharing costs with a foundation supported nonprofit, and help new nonprofits expand their reach and impact (see for example partnerships between Voice of San Diego and NBC, California Watch‘s partnerships with papers around the state, ProPublica and the New York Times, etc).
- Collaborations let small news organizations share resources and get the benefits of larger organizations (see for example the rise of networks like The Media Consortium, the Investigative News Network, and the American Independent News Network).
- Collaborations help create hybrid local/national reporting projects that bring national context to local stories and give local issues a national stage (see for example the New York Times partnerships with the Bay Citizen and Chicago News Cooperative).
- Collaborations between citizens and journalists are helping expand coverage and deepen coverage, while giving new people a voice in the news (see for example Huffington Post’s OffTheBus project, ProPublica’s crowd-sourced coverage of stimulus spending and American Public Media’s public insight network).
I believe that the “donation driven” subscription model being rolled out at the New York Times and the various collaborative models listed above are about trying to foster new kinds of hybrid models for news. If that’s a good thing – and I would argue that it is – then it raises a question: How do we support and foster the further hybridization of news?
The Knight News Challenge has been remarkably open to ambiguously defined projects that cross boundaries between nonprofit and for-profit, or leave the eventual tax status as an open question, but where else is that happening? Perhaps some of the new journalism labs and digital media test kitchens at places like MIT, USC Annenberg and the University of Colorado can provide some answers.
Clay Shirky has said, and people are fund of quoting him, “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments.” However, if our experiments are bounded by the confines outdated ideas and legal structures, we can only discover new versions of what we already know.
Note: This post is loosely a response to the March “Carnival of Journalism” project – read more about that project here.