The Athletic Was Right Not To Lower Its Paywall

If you want to read good journalism, the solution isn't to make it free — it's to pay for it.

The story that The Athletic published Monday exposing Mickey Callaway’s serial inappropriate behavior was an excellent piece of journalism, plain and simple. It was straight and to-the-point; it clearly and conclusively established a pattern of inappropriate behavior. It was well-sourced and well-written; really, there’s not much to complain about.

The chief complaint about the report in The Athletic wasn’t about the story itself. Rather, it was about the paywall in front of it. The story, the argument goes, was so important that The Athletic shouldn’t have held it back from readers without subscriptions. Just search Twitter for “The Athletic paywall,” and you’ll find lots of thoughts to that effect.

This argument, though, really doesn’t make sense. The report in The Athletic is a perfect example of why it’s important to pay for good journalism. So it takes extreme mental gymnastics to argue, in essence, that The Athletic shouldn’t be able to make any money off its most important work.

Here’s a basic rundown of the business side of things. The Athletic uses a subscription-only business model on its published writing, while running advertisements on its podcasts (which are free even for non-subscribers). This is in contrast with most publications, like ESPN, The New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. Off the top of my head, the Wall Street Journal is the only other major publication I can think of whose published writing uses a purely subscription-based business model. 

Most publications use a different model: they give readers a certain number of free articles each month and offer optional subscriptions for more access, while also running advertisements. That means two revenue streams: ad money and subscription money. But people also don’t like advertisements, so it means that readers don’t enjoy the product quite as much. The Athletic, by contrast, only makes money on the writing it produces by selling subscriptions. By not embedding ads on its website, The Athletic is passing up ad revenue it could probably make without batting an eye. It’s doing this intentionally: ad-free pages make for a better, smoother reading experience.  

The subscription-only model also has a positive side effect: The Athletic has no incentive to chase clicks. It doesn’t make money every time someone views one of its pages; it only makes money by gaining subscribers. 

So, back to the issue at hand: the paywall in front of the Callaway story. Let’s say The Athletic caved to the pressure, and decided that in the future, it wouldn’t utilize its paywall on any stories that were overwhelmingly important for the public to read. What would happen?

Well, for one, The Athletic would immediately lose most of its incentive to chase down important stories. If readers can access the Callaway story for free, but have to pay for less societally important stories, what kind of story is The Athletic more likely to publish? Don’t forget that we’re talking about the journalism industry, which isn’t exactly flush with cash. Publications need to make money, and the way The Athletic does that is by enticing people to subscribe by producing really good writing and putting it behind a paywall. It really doesn’t make sense to respond to a particularly important and well-done story by saying “this story is so good that you shouldn’t be able to make any money from it.”

“Wait!” you might respond. “Don’t journalists have ethics? Shouldn’t they report important stories like this whether there’s a paywall or not?”

Well, sure. And the thing is, if The Athletic took down its paywall and important stories like the Callaway report no longer made money, editors might still assign them, and writers might still chase them. But then they’d be forced to choose: financial success or good journalism? Obviously, that’s not a sustainable position for a publication, or, indeed, an industry.

Readers, meanwhile, would face a similar disincentive. Say The Athletic took down its paywall on the Callaway story and other similarly impactful reports. What would readers think? “Well,” they might say, “I was about to buy a subscription…but now there’s no need! All the biggest stories are free!” 

For the publication, taking down the paywall would incentivize writing money-making stories that weren’t important enough to be free for all. For readers, it would incentivize not paying for the most important stories, and promulgate the false internet-age belief that the default state of journalism is pretty much that it’s free, and that media outlets need to make money in ways besides being paid for good reporting.  

Consider what’s happened here. The Athletic, a news outlet currently proving that people will still pay for good old-fashioned reporting and writing, has published a well-reported, deeply sourced story that does everything good journalism is supposed to. It comforts the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable; it gives voice to the voiceless; etc. The lesson to take from this should be simple: subscribe to The Athletic! If you want to read the work its writers are doing, pay for a subscription, so that the publication gets paid for reporting an important story that you want to read, and so that it can continue reporting similarly important stories while making enough money to support itself. 

What doesn’t make sense, and what’s incredibly counterproductive, is to argue the opposite: that the most well-done, difficult, societally important stories should be free. Most journalists and editors are passionate about the field, but they’re not volunteers; they’re professionals with bills to pay. If you’re not a subscriber to The Athletic, but you still want to read their report on Mickey Callaway, there’s a simple solution: become one. Pay for it. Follow the old adage. In journalism, as in life, you get what you pay for.