If conversations around digital journalism have been dominated by anything in the first quarter of 2012, it’s probably been about subscriptions, also known as pay walls. Walls are going up at the L.A. Times and Gannett papers, and getting higher at The New York Times. And the editor of The Guardian asked his readers, “What would you give the Guardian? Money, time or data?”

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At the end of last year, Raju Narisetti proposed a pay wall alternative he dubbed the “‘Why don’t we pay you?’ pay wall“ … and then left the unwalled Washington Post for the walled Wall Street Journal.

The conversation all this time has been focused on whether the shift toward digital subscriptions will save the news business. But the more interesting and important question is whether and how it will change the news content and public discourse.

There’s never been a question that people will pay for digital content. Give people information they need to profit professionally or enjoy personally, and they will pay for it. But what about all the boring and bad stuff? What about the kind of iron-butt reporting that has journalists cover legislative subcommittee meetings just so powerful people know the public is watching? And the quarter million-dollar investigations that find the hidden winners and losers?

That news doesn’t entertain; it doesn’t give me a competitive edge; and it doesn’t save my family money in the short run. Those kind of stories make big waves every now and again, but no matter how high the pay wall, once the story is out, it spreads via broadcast news, social media and word of mouth. Even those who don’t pay for it get to benefit from its impact.

social media’s role

The role that social media plays in the subscription pay model isn’t fully understood — by me at least. I’d like to find the time to ask about whether paying subscribers share more or different stories than non-subscribers.

In any case, with a pay wall in place, subscribers will — as always — set the agenda more than non-subscribers. Some subscribers will be more influential than others, either because they have more followers or because they provide a better filter. In either case, the future of public discourse lies with subscribers. We need to know more about who they are and how their desired public agenda differs from non-subscribers.

It’s easy to suspect that only the elite would pay for news — only people whose personal social and economic decisions are determined by taxpayer money and public markets — and that the topics that interest those folks may not be particularly populist.

But then I stumbled across a January 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center that seems to indicate that the willingness to pay for news may not be as elitist as I originally thought: African Americans and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to say that they would pay a monthly subscription fee if that was the only way to get full access to their local newspaper online. But there’s no significant difference among any age groups under 65, nor is there a difference between men and women. On the other hand, college grads and people who make more than $75,000 a year are more likely to say they would pay for online local news than people who make less and have less education.

So does the public discourse look different if the people who subsidize original reporting — and then share it — are rich, educated, racial and ethnic minorities? After paying to see the news, what would they share? And who would they share it with?

the social distribution of news

The democratization of publishing means that alternative points of view would always be waiting in the on-deck circle anytime the paid-stream media misses a story its audience cares about. So it’s also important to predict what kind of effect the audience’s sharing patterns would have on journalists who want to make sure their pay walled reports remain valuable enough to make ends meet.

The social distribution of news has two benefits for news organizations — they sell advertising against each unique visitor, and they have an opportunity to convert the social media samplers into paying subscribers. But if the role of advertising at news organizations becomes a significantly lower share of revenue, then eyeballs alone won’t matter as much. News organizations might be less interested in running “water cooler” stories that are cute and fun alone. And they might be more inclined to run stories that target an audience that wants more than 140-character summaries.

Research collaborations between academics and industry could help us make better guesses — and making good guesses on this topic will be important for any news organization that understands it doesn’t sell ads or subscriptions, but trust and influence.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Aunty P.