10.31.11 | 3 Comments

CATEGORIES journalism

And such a wall, as I would have you think,

That had in it a crannied hole or chink…

— A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 I would like to state unequivocally that I believe in a well-funded, independent press/media and that in order to insure it remains as a check against those in power who would like to control or alter the information we learn or receive, we must pay for it. The end.

Now I will proceed to, essentially, contradict my first paragraph. But as media evolves, it’s all very tricky.

I’ve been around long enough to remember the days when, if something was written in a local newspaper or broadcast on local media in a community in which you did not reside, you either had to get someone to send you a clipping or, beginning in the 1980s, send you a tape of a broadcast. That was, of course, the dark ages compared to today, when Google News, You Tube and online media outlets around the world make it possible to access the vast majority of what is said or written of note, no matter where you are. Indeed, using websites, companies can now create and disseminate their own media, freed from the arbiters of the mass media, although with something less than its reach.

The advent of social media only accelerated this process, since you could now send friends, followers, and the like a link that would give them immediate access to the same material you uncovered. Local material could quickly become amplified, with the most compelling, absurd, or amusing going viral in a matter of days or even hours.

This has altered the playing field for arts organizations considerably. Throughout my career, I have had conversations with peers at other arts groups who are seeking “national press,” specifically coverage which would be readily accessible to a readership or viewership across the country, far beyond the scope of local media. This was true of virtually every organization outside of New York, which as a media capital offered an access that wasn’t equaled elsewhere. Sure, if you were in Chicago you had Oprah dreams, and those in Washington DC had an easier time attraction NPR and CPB, but however powerful those outlets were, they stood relatively alone.

After a few years, I began to speak, emphatically, about what I called “the myth of national press.” I was referring to the fact that, as media outlets consolidated and arts reporting shrank, there were only a handful of outlets that were truly national, in either ambition or reach. Time and Newsweek weren’t traveling the country, USA Today was a national paper with east coast-centric arts coverage (not the case for film, sports, or music, of course), The New York Times seemed to travel less and only The Wall Street Journal bucked the trend by expanding national arts coverage in recent years. I coached organizations to measure their expectations, since the opportunities were becoming ever rarer.

That’s why I’ve been such a proponent of social media: because it restores and even enhances a national conversation on the arts, often prompted by the established media but sustained on Facebook, Twitter and other sites and services. In fact, it allows for conversations far beyond what had occurred even when there was more of a national arts media, because everyone had a voice, but it is still based in the major media.

But now we’re hitting a wall. More precisely, a paywall.

More and more newspapers are making their content accessible only to those who pay a fee, be it monthly, weekly or per article. I have a hard time arguing against this strategy, for the very reasons stated in my first paragraph. Yet I regret it enormously, because it will have the effect of once again narrowing the national conversation about the arts if we can’t read what’s being written in other communities as fodder for our own conversations, tweets and blogs.  While I might not miss either of these particular conversations, imagine if paywalls had prevented us from reading Stephen Sondheim’s letter about the new production of Porgy and Bess back in August, or if the argument over Shakespeare’s authorship prompted by the film Anonymous hadn’t elicited so many different views? What if reviews couldn’t be aggregated and linked, so that we were truly restricted to a handful of opinions? Even as we mourn for the decline of newspapers, it’s impossible now to think of being blocked from access to any news outlet we like, whenever we like. For those of us who have become curators of coverage, the vistas we pass on to our readers and followers will become ever narrower.

Yes, there are chinks in the wall, as Shakespeare provided for his comic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. The adept can clear histories, remove cookies and avail themselves of relatively easy workarounds, but many more will stop dead when told they need to enter their credit card number to read on.

I love engaging in conversation with both professionals and amateurs over issues in the arts and I applaud how the internet has democratized access to media, giving us all the possibility of becoming broadcasters. But I worry about losing the most powerful voices after having had them for less than a generation. Perhaps there could be an internet version of the sports blackout, where local games cannot be seen for free in local markets, in order not to undermine live attendance? Surely the technology exists. After all, the Minneapolis Star Tribune loses no business by letting me read it for free online, since I wouldn’t be buying it in the first place, even if it were available to me. Perhaps foundations dedicated to the arts could pay newspapers to keep those portions of their websites free? It’s a long shot, but not impossible. Maybe some papers, like The Washington Post, will master monetizing their websites without charging users for access.

Against all odds, there is still terrific arts writing, both critical and feature, in this country, and its has been a privilege for the past 15 years to read more of it than I ever had before. But we now have the quandary of our horizons shrinking in order to save the very media that we want to access, making conversation ever more local once again. I will read as much as I can for as long as I can, but every day, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Star-Tribune and their brethren…they place another brick in the wall. And the walls are closing in.

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Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman has nearly three decades of both executive and staff experience at such companies as American Theatre Wing, O'Neill Theatre Center, Geva Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Hartford Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club and Westport Country Playhouse. He tweets as @hesherman.

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  • I am sure that there will be a way to get around this.   When there is a will (ie more arts coverage, or being able to fund your publication) there is a way.

    There are three sides to this:
    1. The reader
    2. The publisher
    3. The professional journalist

    We have to satisfy all three – satisfy the readers so that they come back to your publication and you can maintain the ‘eyeballs’ needed for advertising/leverage/etc, the publisher (it is within their best interest that they remain alive), the journalist (it is within their best interest that their profession remains alive).  It is possible that paywalls can satisfy all three and while the strategy may be different to each publication I think that the following points can help justify paywalls:

    1. There will be a certain reader profile that will pay. If they want to continue reading your publication they will come back and pay to access your content meaning that this group are your most loyal.  This is good for publishers in terms of keeping themselves afloat (running costs, staff costs, bills to pay, kids to send school to..).  No publisher – no source for readers, one less source of income for the journalists.

    2. It means that publication has done good – not just cashflow to keep themselves sustainability but someone actually wanting to pay you is a good thing as they see value in that content.

    Realising that you need to cut costs, cut operations, cut people out of their income streams (even if it’s just contractors), is a bitter pill to swallow having been in a similar type of setting before.

    I am not against looking at new business models, new ways of monetisation, new money in order to keep these afloat – we are living in a disruptive (technologically speaking) world.  As long as we continue to monitor these, keep the discussions going, while keeping an open mind at all of this (my first knee reaction to payment walls was a no).

    Am I a paywall user? Yes, I am, have recently subscribed to a website in order to gain, basically, access to their content. Free is good and it can work too – Facebook, Twitter, WordPress are all free but unfortunately not every service can subscribe to and live on being absolutely free .

  • Also.  Online advertising (I’m thinking specifically, banner ads etc) aren’t the holy grail to save online publications.

    1. Practice of some sites to do auto-refresh to bump up their pageviews.  Advertisers want it, publishers want to give it, readers don’t.  I was on a website which had automatic refresh set at an interval of 5 minutes, actually know this when trying to watch a 5+ minute video ON THEIR PAGE.  I don’t think many notice it, for example the average time spent on a website could be 3-4 minutes so it’s not disruptive if the auto refresh is set at 5 or so minutes.

    2.  When was the last time you clicked on an ad?

    3. We’re a savvy online bunch and we’re used to ignoring online ads.

    The big drawback of paywall sites is that it’s awful for social media integration and getting discussions out there around topical articles and I (we?) get a lot of our content through recommendations, shares, likes, tweets.  But I have seen some sites deliver a small paragraph free or an online news publication can offer access to a limited amount of articles per month before they start dishing out the paywall registration message. 

  • Why is there an automatic assumption that print journalism is necessary for conversation?