Can The Resistance Take The New York Times Hostage?

As news companies come to depend on paying subscribers, their dollars will influence editorial independence just as easily as corporate advertisers once did.

When I was a student-journalist, it went without saying that advertising was the biggest threat to independent media. Putting your livelihood in the hands of capitalists meant, almost by definition, doing their bidding.

These days, most newsrooms can only dream of being corrupted by an easy stream of ad dollars. That stream has been diverted to a couple of bank accounts in San Francisco, leaving publishers scrambling to replace ad dollars with subscriber dollars by convincing readers that news is something worth paying for.

The New York Times has been most successful at this, reporting dot-com-style growth in its digital business thanks to surging subscriber numbers. Others are also learning to rely on payments from readers. But as the industry moves in that direction, it will learn that subscribers can collide with editorial independence just as easily as corporate advertisers can. If their willingness to pay for news (and by implied threat, stop paying) becomes central to news economics, the Resistance can take a newspaper hostage much more effectively than advertisers ever did.

I first saw this dynamic in play a decade ago when I began working as an editor at a newspaper. One early surprise was that you don’t wake up every day to a swarm of calls from outraged advertisers threatening to pull their campaigns if you don’t wise up.

Those calls happened — perhaps to complain about an unfortunate and typically accidental placement of an ad next to an unsavory story, or about what the company sees as unfair treatment in an article. But on the whole, advertisers didn’t spend a lot of time trying to dictate what went into the news pages, presumably because they didn’t really care. What they wanted was access to our audience, not a veto over content.

But you know who complained a lot? Subscribers did, endlessly. Sometimes with good reason, but many other times, with no justification at all. I lost count of the number of times I took calls from readers calling to complain about something published by another newspaper or that they had heard on the radio, but they swore they read it in our pages. Sometimes you could tell these readers to take a hike, but as the newspaper business declined it became less advisable to treat readers as an annoyance.

Today, the great hope for news organizations is that internet users will do something they’ve rarely done before, which is pay for digital news. The NYT seems well on its way to bending the revenue curve and replacing ad dollars with subscribers at a 1:1 ratio, and there are similar ambitions for the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Smaller metropolitan or regional papers are hoping for the same thing, once the great shakeup is finally done.

But here’s the thing about paid content: One of our basic cultural principles is the maxim “the customer is always right.” This is not an empirical statement. Rather, it is part of the metaphysical foundations of the market economy. Maybe the steak was cooked badly, or maybe the customer just has bad taste. Doesn’t matter: When it comes to spending their money, the consumer is sovereign.

What happens when you apply this to news? Early indications are that it will lead to an increasingly polarized media environment, through more or less the same mechanism that leads to group polarization in social psychology. When a news organization relies almost entirely on its readership for its revenue, it will inevitably start to cater to what the publisher perceives to be the political center of gravity of that readership. And the readership will in turn make demands on the editors to shape the coverage in certain ways, which will tend to gradually shift that center of gravity away from the middle, and towards the political extremes. The organization will end up in an ideological box the readership won’t let it out of.

You can already see this process at work in the social media space. Whenever the NYT does a story that the Twittersphere decides is off base — as in the paper’s much-derided profile of a white nationalist, or the succession of rakes its opinion section has stepped on in recent months — a consensus rapidly emerges and the reporters and/or editors get treated to the now-traditional social media pile on.

At a slightly lower pitch, news organizations are also subject to more or less constant complaints over politically insensitive photo selection, headlines (“Here, I fixed that headline for you”), story subjects, you name it.

Sometimes these complaints are valid, and sometimes when they are not, the editors have the stomach to ignore the torrent of anger. But in a world where readers are the ones paying the bills, they are ultimately also the ones calling the shots. When the subscribers become the de facto owners, it can only lead in one direction, which is that paying for news will give us a media that is more partisan, not less.

Andrew Potter is a Canadian journalist and academic.

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