The Future of Journalism

Robert Wilonsky, formerly of the Dallas Observer

In honor of the class I’m teaching at the University of Texas at Dallas, I’ve decided to turn my lecture into a blog post… just like I would recommend to my students. Today, in my home town of Dallas, there was a massive shift in the journalism industry. Robert Wilonsky has left the Dallas Observer to become the head of Digital Managing Editor for the Dallas Morning News and will oversee their website. Now, unless you are in Dallas, you don’t truly understand what this means… Over the years I’ve become convinced that Dallas is the largest small town in America. This is the largest network I’ve ever seen behave in the ways that a small network does. One small shift can have a great impact on the sum of all parts… and Robert Wilonsky’s new position will change everything in the world of Dallas media.

Robert Wilonsky has been the editor of Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer’s blog. Since 2006, this has become THE online resource for information on Dallas. He’s turned the Dallas Observer blog into one of the most well read Alt Weekly blogs in the nation. It’s good. I’d even say it’s brilliant. This is how I’ve received  my information about my city for the past 5 years.

The Dallas Morning News is the epitome of big media. They’ve gone through several trials and tribulations to gain footing in the digital space… however, they’re best known for being of the first major newspapers to jump behind the paywall. They’ve stated that they’ve achieved success in doing so, and have no plans to stop any time soon. They have one of the best examples of a “walled garden” that exists in content today.

So Robert Wilonsky will move from heading one of the most open, successful news blogs in America to… life behind a paywall.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to newspapers moving behind paywalls. I think that it may, in fact, become the best way to approach the monetization of good content in the future. The premium model has worked very successfully for many online entities, and I feel like it is certainly something that can work for the newspaper industry if they can figure out how to approach it correctly. I have not problem paying for good content, however,  THAT is my biggest problem with journalism moving behind a paywall. We’ve been trained to believe that behind these magical paywalls there are hard nosed, investigative reports that mean something to the community. These are stories that only those with the resources of the Dallas Morning News could possibly convey to the public, and all you have to do is sign up and you can be privy to this wealth of information…

Well… not so much. It has been a long standing tradition in the news media to subsidize the “real news” with the “news” that people actually consume, IE entertainment, lifestyle columns, sports, etc. We’re not paying just for Watergate, we’re paying for a play by play of the Kardashian Wedding.

Secondly, they still haven’t quite figured out how their own paywall seems to work… for instance, when you click on the News section of the Dallas Morning News, you see an article labeled:

Dallas firefighters leave scene, return to fatality 

Now this article is not accessible to me currently, because I am not a paywall subscriber… however, when I type the same thing in to Google, I found this:

Dallas firefighters leave scene, return to fatality

This is the exact article that I’m not able to access because of the paywall if I attempt to do so through the Dallas Morning News website. Like I said… this may be the way to manage monetization in the future, but you better figure out how.

That brings us back to Mr. Wilonsky. This is going to be quite the adjustment… going from a company (Village Voice Media) who monetizes free newspapers based solely on advertising, to the dreaded paywall model of the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure that there will start to be more interesting content provided to those who are not paywall subscribers initially, to try to pull the Dallas Observer’s core audience back to the more historically established Dallas Morning News. I’m sure that the Dallas Morning News blogs will even start to have a bit more of an Observer like edge… but after the initial push is over… and it’s time to retreat back into the world of the paywall… Will Wilonsky have helped a behemoth of the old guard into the age of new media? Or will he be another casualty to the sort of thinking that has turned these cash cows into a dying breed? I’m not sure we’ll know for several months… and by then the newspaper as we know it may have disappeared…

After all… the entire concept of what exactly a newspaper is is shifting rapidly. (Is Twitter a Newspaper or a Phone company?)

So, for you, my class, I ask you this… will you pay for content? Is this the future of journalism? Is it too late? Do we expect too much for free now? What is the future of journalism?



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