The New York Times‘s says they’re going to take another stab at erecting a paywall, just four years after they abandoned their previous effort. On Friday, I got into a debate with Dan Rothschild about it. Dan wrote that “if advertising were a silver bullet, presumably someone would have figured out how to really make it work by now.” This left me scratching my head, because of course there are lots and lots of examples of news websites that turn a profit without charging subscription fees. But Dan says these examples don’t count:
Shoe-leather reporting is extremely valuable… The opinion and inside baseball sites that you mentioned can’t exist without the work the Times and others do… Those sites are low cost because they don’t have bureaus in Chicago and San Francisco and Houston, much less London and Frankfurt and Cairo and Jerusalem and Singapore. And I haven’t seen a business model wherein well-compensated, talented journalists do investigative reporting around the world outside of traditional news media.
I’ve written before about the “shoe leather” argument. While there are undoubtedly some kinds of stories a publication can only get by putting a reporter on a plane or staffing a foreign bureau, the Internet has dramatically reduced the universe of stories for which that is true. Sports seems like a pretty clear example of this: if you’re a reporter for the New York Times, and you want to get your readers information about a Yankees away game in Toronto, there are lots of ways to do that other than “shoe-leather” reporting: you can solicit first-hand fan reports or link to coverage from local publications, for example. Or you could even watch the game on television. There are a lot of beats that require less shoe leather than they used to.
But even setting that kind of efficiency issue aside, there’s also a basic point about what the New York Times actually does. The NYTimes.com website has 12 virtual “sections.” Of these, three and a half (World, U.S., N.Y./Region, and some of “Business”) feature a significant amount of “shoe leather” reporting. The next three (Technology, Science, and Health) are technical subjects that can be handled at least as well by specialized web publications. Technology, the beat I know best, is already dominated by web-native publications like TechCrunch and CNet. The last five sections (sports, opinion, arts, style, and travel) are the kind of content that involves relatively little shoe-leather reporting. Niche websites, amateur blogs, and user-generated content sites could easily replace these sections.
Now add to this Clay Shirky’s point that reporters are a relatively small fraction of the staff of a newspaper. Shirky counted 6 out of 59 reporters for the Columbia Daily Tribune, a relatively small daily in Missouri. The ratio seems to be a little higher at the Times: the annual report tells me there are 3094 employees in the The New York Times Media Group, while there are reportedly around 1200 editorial employees—about 40 percent of the staff. Do the math (3.5/12*1200/3094), and you find that, very roughly, around 11 percent of Times employees are directly contributing to the “shoe leather reporting” process. Now, the “shoe-leather” sections probably consume more resources than the others, but even adjusting for that it’s hard to believe that more than 20 percent of Times revenues are devoted in covering these beats.
Compare that to Pro Publica, a non-profit organization dedicated entirely to funding serious investigative reporting. They have a budget of $9 million, and according to their annual report almost two-thirds of that went to “News salaries, payments and benefits.” They list a staff of about 30 reporters and editors, compared with just 8 executives and administrative staff.
So even if you believe that a purely advertising-supported web won’t be able to support an adequate amount of shoe-leather reporting, voluntarily subscribing to a paywalled Times, despite the existence of high-quality, free alternatives like CNN and the BBC, seems silly. If serious news is what I want, then I should donate to an organization that focuses on producing it. About 65 cents of every dollar I give to Pro Publica will go to support serious, public-interested newsgathering. It makes no sense to instead give money to an organization that will spend less than 20 cents of every dollar on shoe-leather reporting as a means to its primary goal of making the Sulzberger family wealthier.