Why Toronto Star columnist got it wrong

To make them pay or not to pay, that is the question digital publishers across the globe are asking of their audiences right now.

Is it nobler for publishers to provide content through their websites for free or should readers suffer the outrageous fortune of being made to pay for content?

There are arguments – and good ones at that – on both sides but one which angers me reared its ugly head again this week.

A Toronto Star columnist took to her title’s website to argue the case for paywalls, her main thrust being that because content costs money to produce then readers should pay money to read it.

This argument floats in a sea of trouble.

I have been in journalism for nearly 20 years and editors – well, the good ones anyway – have always drummed one thing into me: never, ever, forget the readers.

The readers, rightly so, will decide what they like. They’re the editorial customer and the publishing industry would do well to never forget that.

So think of that when Rosie DiManno argues: “But it costs big bucks to put out a decent paper,” and “…the fact remains that salaries have to be paid, bills paid, travel expenses paid”.

Readers couldn’t care less about a journalist’s travel expenses. Readers couldn’t care less how much it costs to print a newspaper.

What they do care about is being delivered meaningful content; editorial that gets them hooked Рrich, powerful, analytical, entertaining, important to their lives, exclusive even.

I’m not a regular reader of the Toronto Star but it’s the biggest-seller in Canada so it may well tick all of those boxes. If it does then a paywall could work and good luck with it.

However, one assertion – just four simple words – in the editorial piece did genuinely anger me and, I believe, it is one that the industry still hasn’t really got its head around yet.

“I write, you read”.

In my opinion, so wrong on so many levels. What happens if what has been written is incorrect? Should the reader have to be content with a response of ‘sorry but that’s life’.

An opinionated columnist should be held to account, made to respond to readers who disagree. We ask for accountability from our public officials so we should practice what we preach.

And working with readers can make our journalism so much better. When that story idea is a mere seed, readers can help make it grow into something much tastier.

We don’t have to write a story and, once it’s been seen, think about possible follow-up angles. We can create a piece of content in the first instance that covers all bases. We can provide that full analytical, rich, powerful package.

It’s what I believe enhanced social media activity can lead to and a good amount of comments we now get through our Facebook and Twitter accounts are of a much more meaningful quality than what Rosie describes on her Toronto Star website.

“I write, you read” is a phrase that doesn’t belong on any web page. And it ¬†doesn’t belong in any newspaper organisation.