The Guardian newspaper in Britain is one of the most prominent papers without a paywall, and some media-industry observers argue that it should erect one soon or potentially lose its ability to create great journalism.

Now that the Washington Post has erected a paywall (although it remains to be seen whether it will maintain that stance now that it is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) the Guardian newspaper in Britain is probably the most high-profile newspaper that doesn’t have a pay model of any kind — apart from its iPad app and mobile app, both of which cost a fee. But some media observers are arguing that it almost has a duty to put up a paywall, in order to support the kind of journalism it has been doing around the NSA story.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian (please see disclosure below) told New Yorker writer Ken Auletta recently that the paper is not “the Taliban of free,” and that he is considering various forms of subscription or pay models. But during an interview on PBS NewsHour on the weekend — which is embedded below — Auletta and New York Times media writer David Carr both argued that the paper should put up a paywall sooner rather than later, since it continues to hemorrhage money. As Auletta put it:

“They have a kind of semi-socialist state, in that they are run by the Scott Trust. They lost 31 million pounds last year, and 44 million the year before — they’ve lost money for nine straight years. Can this really good newspaper, which does really good investigative reporting, survive in the digital age?”

Now is the perfect time, says Carr

David Carr, whose newspaper has what is probably one of the most successful subscription models in the industry (although it still hasn’t quite made up for the decline in print advertising), argued that since the Guardian has drawn so much attention for the stories by Glenn Greenwald about the NSA, now would be the perfect time for the paper to start charging its readers:

“I would argue that at this time when the eyes of the world are focused upon them, when they’re breaking story after story… wouldn’t it be a good time to to step toward the consumer and say, you love these stories, how about showing us a little sugar, how about we start charging?”

This discussion triggered a debate on Twitter following the interview, one that included a number of media-industry players — including John Paton, the CEO of Digital First Media and a strong critic of paywalls — but was mostly conducted between Financial Times columnist John Gapper and Emily Bell, who used to be in charge of digital operations at the Guardian and is now the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Bell started off by saying paywalls were a “short-term strategy,” and Gapper responded that, given the massive losses that the Guardian has suffered over the past several years, the newspaper should probably be worrying about its short-term strategy, or it might not be around to do any more of those world-changing stories:

Is a paywall antithetical to open journalism?

As the debate went on (a more complete version is embedded below), Bell argued that the kind of journalism the Guardian does has value that goes beyond just the financial cost of producing it — and Gapper continued to argue that the newspaper is in danger of running out of cash, which would prevent it from continuing that process. Alan Rusbridger, however, later replied that the paper is beating its own business plan, which was aimed at to reduce losses substantially:

rusbridger tweet

What’s interesting is that everyone involved in the discussion about the Guardian and paywalls, from Carr to Bell to Gapper, agrees that the newspaper’s journalism is valuable — but no one can seem to agree on how to pay for it. And in some cases the desire to pay for it via a subscription plan seems at odds with the very “open journalism” that Rusbridger and the Guardian have become famous for.

Carr, for example, talks about the community of readers that the newspaper has developed, and how it could convince them to pay for Guardian reporting — and yet, a paywall would effectively remove all of that great journalism from the vast majority of readers who are either unable or unwilling to pay for it. As Auletta said in the PBS NewsHour discussion:

“The Guardian has an ID as a liberal, anti-establishment newspaper, and that’s the community they’ve built around the world, and it’s been very successful. Can they build it if they have a pay model? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom/paidContent.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Voronin76

  1. Elizabeth Mars Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    A pay wall strategy is at odds with the free flow of information of social media networks. I’m Australian and so many people I know no longer buy the newspapers because of their extreme political bias in this country. I access all my news through my social media network on twitter now. I read a lot of articles from the Guardian because they don’t have a pay wall. I’m not sure if I would pay for it because I’ve become so cynical about newspapers I no longer trust one source or newspaper (even the Guardian) for my news. I don’t know what the solution is but its probably worth looking at the American online news sites like Slate, Daily Beast and Politico because I assume they make money without a pay wall

  2. Ole Petter Pedersen Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    What is antithetical to open journalism is surely a newspaper that is bankrupt, which The Guardian, great as it is, would have been ages ago, if it wasn’t for their benefactor.

    So, unless we want newspapers to survive by the good will of some very rich people, we actually have to pay for what we read. Shocking, isn’t it?

  3. I think Emily Bell should start off by learning English in the first place, before sending out a tweet every couple of minutes. In my humble opinion, the arguments of a journalist who knows the difference between “it’s” and “its” – for instance – are much more convincing.

  4. Fred Schecker Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    Pay walls are like chain link fences — plenty of holes and easy to get around. Not sure what the debate is anymore.

  5. I’ve always thought that the Guardian should just ask people to make a one-off cash donation of however much they wanted. Like Wikipedia does, but in a less worthy way.
    I would happily give them 20/30 quid. I bet loads of people would. In fact, I bet they would be overwhelmed.

    Yes, rival newspapers would savage them for asking for charity, but who cares about them? I think Guardian online readers all know the realities of trying to make good journalism pay when you give it all away free. We’re a reasonability bright bunch. And we know the Mail site only manages to break even by stuffing their site full of t**s and a*s.

  6. They experimented with a paywall for GUARDIAN EYEWITNESS and almost put the service out of business.

    Already back to free.

  7. SocraticGadfly Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    Oh, Guardian has to have a paywall, even if Mathew isn’t a fan of them. Per Auletta’s story, Rusbridger has about three-four years left at current loss rate before he finishes burning through the trust fund money. He can then join Paton and some of DFM’s subproperties, like Journal Register and Media News, on the bankruptcy slag heap. And we all Knooooooowwwww what quality products they put out.

    Re the NYT: Another way of saying “still hasn’t quite made up for the decline in print advertising” is that it has the most successful paywall of any mass-market newspaper in the U.S. and that “it has made up for much more of the decline in print advertising than any other paper in the U.S.”

  8. If there’s an important story The Guardian can still support “open journalism” by removing the lock on the gate.

    Also, in a world of paywalls the free newspaper is king. The longer The Guardian delays its paywall the longer it has to get new readers habituated. Once it becomes part of their daily routine it’ll be easier getting the paywall funded.

  9. One should remember that there is the BBC in the UK which produces news free of charge and continues to do so. It’s not an issue of an ideology. It’s the issue of a competition. Can the Guardian set up a paywall in an environment where the BBC is roaming? I don’t think so.

  10. “Also, in a world of paywalls the free newspaper is king”

    The King of what, Foremski? The cemetery? You should follow the Gapper/Bell debate. Unless it can generate profits or find a huge cross subsidy from a sugar daddy, The Guardian will soon cease to exist.

    Because money doesn’t grown on trees.

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