Paying for News: A Mega-Merger Thought Experiment

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Time for some radical thinking in journalism business models, right? OK, try this thought experiment (wait a second while I put on a flame-retardant suit):

What would happen if some top English language journalism organizations simply merged and started charging for their breaking news and commentary about policy, economics and and other national/international topics. That is, what if they were to combine for critical mass and keep most of their journalism off the public Internet for a few days after publication but then make the archives freely available?

Before you spit out your coffee (or whatever) in rage and/or laughter and/or derision, let me happily concede that this approach would raise all kinds of questions -- about elitism, fundamental business issues, the Internet’s linking culture and more. But it's already sparked a great offline conversation. And who knows, it might even work (though as you'll see below, some colleagues have pointed out good reasons why it might not).

The word “might” is the key one. We’re in the midst of an important discussion of how we’re going to pay for quality journalism as the 20th Century business models unravel. Unfortunately, people keep looking for magic potions that will solve the entire problem, failing to recognize that this is not a binary issue but rather a nuanced collection of changes.

No single business model will emerge – or so we should hope, because if that happens we’ll be racing back to new kinds of market inefficiencies that stem from non-diverse ecosystems. We need a thousand experiments, most of which will fail but, we hope, more than a few that will work.

That’s why even though I find the recent revival of a discredited idea -- see Time Magazine’s recent piece on micro-payments for news -- more than a bit tedious, I’m not sorry we’re having it. Note that I share the skeptics’ views of this approach, though I think at least one related project/idea deserves a much closer look: Doc Searls’ VRM/PayChoice , which is all about a new kind of payment system that has genuine possibilities (more below from Doc on this).

UPDATE: Several folks have asserted that I'm calling this the last, best hope for saving good journalism. Not so. I see this as one possible way to have some good journalism going forward.

Anyway, in a semi-over-the-top mode, let’s sign up the following organizations:

Call the new company, oh, NewJournCo. Then set a price for the journalism. (Note: I own a small amount of NYT stock, which is nearly worthless at this point.)

I don’t know the combined annual newsroom cost of these organizations, but I’d be surprised if it was even $750 million. Let’s go wild and call it $1 billion, so we can pay for lawyers, Web developers, accountants and a bunch of other folks who’d need to be part of the operation.

I'll now switch into the combined mode of devil's advocate and defender of this thought experiment. Several of the questions that follow came from Jay Rosen, whose excellent brain I picked on this notion:

Q: How did you come up with your membership list? What rules did you use for who gets included and who does not?

A: No rules except their ability to do excellent journalism – it’s a first cut. I’m sure there are some organizations that don’t belong on the list, and others that do. I'd add National Public Radio and the Guardian if the ownership/nonprofit issues could be resolved, for example. And maybe the McClatchy Washington Bureau.

Q: Why should I pay for what I am getting now for free?

A: Because it wouldn’t be immediately available anymore except for pay, and – assuming these organizations take their online operations into the much more conversational world that is central to the future of journalism -- the overall cost might be worth what you we in return. If not, then not.

Q: What kind of money are you talking about?

A: Well, 2 million subscribers at $10 a week ($520 a year) would do it would bring in a bit over $1 billion a year. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal together have almost that many subscribers by themselves, paying nearly that much already in the case of the Journal’s paper edition (though significantly less for the online-only subscription) and a significant percentage of that amount for the Times.

Q: Would these Web editions have advertising?

A: Hopefully not for the pay-wall news coverage, if the customers were going to be spending this kind of money. Ads would be counterproductive, to the extent that they were annoying. Advertising would surely be a key source of revenue for the archives, however. And ad revenue in the publications' print editions, while all but certain to disappear eventually, i serious money in at least the near future.

Q: Cartel, anyone? Has anyone asked the Justice Department Antitrust Division what it thinks of this?

A: Who knows? According to Reuters, the attorney general said today that he was "open to adjusting antitrust policy" for newspapers. And former lawyer for the Antitrust Division indicated that a merger of this kind might have a chance of passing muster.

Q: Wouldn’t this arrangement tempt these combined organizations to cut back on their spending for journalism so they could make more money?

A: As if this isn't the current condition of the industry? Investors are greedy and consider a lot of actual journalism to be a waste of money, especially when ad revenues are heading south. But if NewJournCo did lousy journalism it wouldn’t get people to pay. This model would require them to do better journalism than they're doing now, I would wager. And I'd hope that a precondition of any antitrust approval would be assurances of more, not less, journalism.

Q: Wouldn’t this be bad for everyone else who does journalism? Are you calling for a single dominant news organization and nothing else?

A: Absolutely not. This merger wouldn’t necessarily be great for competitors in the arenas where these folks specialize. But competing journalists, singly or in groups, could offer ad-supported and paid alternatives of their own. I can think of dozens of other organizations and individuals whose work I’d continue to follow in general political and business news. The Associated Press is owned by the newspaper industry. Isn’t that more of a cartel than this?

Q: What about local newspapers and local news in general? How does this help local coverage?

A: It doesn’t. They’re pretty much screwed if they don’t make other, bigger changes, and soon.

Q: What about indexing and display by search engines?

A: This could be complicated. I’d suggest that, as now, some individual articles, picked by editors, would be freely available via Google News and other search methods from the moment they were published. Most would not be available immediately.

Q: So the articles would never be seen by Google et al?

A: To the contrary: NewJournCo would would do what the New York Times and Guardian are already doing: putting the archives online with perma-links on every article, because there’s enormous long-term value in being a high-ranking link when someone does a search on a specific topic. As Doc Searls and others (including me) have argued (see below), “Sell the news and give away the olds.” (It’s not really a giveaway if you can monetize it, by the way.)

Q: You’ve named ultra-traditional media companies that have betrayed all kinds of journalistic flaws over the years, and at least some of which plainly don’t understand the digital future at all. Why are they the ones you want to save?

A: Yes, they have tremendous flaws. But they also boast some of the best reporting around. If this worked, they could focus on improving their journalism -- widening their scope of coverage, in fact -- and participating more fully in the digital world. Which is ultimately the point: to preserve and, hopefully, expand some of the journalism that at least some of us believe is important, and create journalism for this century that takes proper advantage of the available tools.

Q: What happens to blogging about and linking to their articles in this scenario?

A: Iin the short run, linking to these organizations’ work would drop except for the few things they posted each day for free. In the long run, with open archives, NewJournCo would accrue a huge amount of “Google Juice” and other search engine notice, because the quality of the work would deserve it. But if the option is less of their journalism (the kind they do well), then I’ll accept this tradeoff.

Q: Does this entity continue its members’ current policy of reducing outbound links out and making a huge percentage of their links internal to their own content?

A: No, I’d hope we could get some kind of quid pro quo (antitrust bargain?) that included, at the very least: a) vastly more transparency in how they do their journalism; b) a commitment to the Web’s linking culture, ensuring that they point to the material that they use to do their own reporting, not to mention the reporting they didn’t do; c) in general, a more conversational approach with the people who read, watch and listen to what they produce. If NewJournCo's managers didn't understand that they should do this, no matter what, then I think the enterprise would ultimately fail anyway.

Q: Again, why should we even support this crowd, most of which consistently failed us and plainly has little concern for what we think? Their idea of public service seems like David Broder urging bi-partisanship. Is this what we need to sustain?

A: What we need to sustain is, to cite just several examples, the relentless questioning of the government propaganda that McClatchy did in the run-up to the Iraq War; the New York Times’ exposure of the Bush administration’s flouting of the law (and Congress’ bended-knee acceptance of that illegality) in warrantless surveillance of the American people; NPR’s brilliant explainer of the housing bubble; and so much more.

Q: Why wouldn’t we see that kind of journalism even if they all went out of business?

A: We would, to some degree. But it’s more difficult than you may think to assemble these kinds of organizations, and to apply the kinds of resources it takes to produce reports of breadth and often depth. There’s no assurance that this system would work, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Q: What guarantees that this could never work?

A: Ego and fear. The CEOs and boards of these enterprises almost certainly wouldn't do anything like this, no matter how logical it might be. All industries are populated with bosses who wouldn't want to lose their jobs and/or power, and this goes triple for declining or failing industries.

Naturally, when I circulated an early version of this to some Berkman Center colleagues, they pushed back, hard. Here are some (lightly edited) comments:

Ethan Zuckerman said:

I think two major outcomes would result:

- A small but fairly successful movement would pirate content successfully and make it accessible to the truly determined.
- The vast majority of readers wouldn’t care and would read more free media.

I suspect the first is true because it’s been virtually impossible to prevent digital content from being redistributed without putting massive DRM on it. If copying and pasting is permissable, I’d expect to see blogs spring up that do little more than repurpose new content from the cabal and add ads to it. This happens all the time with RSS syndication - obviously, it’s possible to send cease and desist letters, but it’s a temporary solution at best. Those blogs don’t get very much traffic now, making it somewhat unsatisfying to send those C&Ds, but if the NYTimes is no longer accessible online, some small group of people is likely to seek out that content via less expensive means.

(I can imagine people doing this for less-than-offensive reasons, BTW. If I subscribe to a cartel paper and blog about its Africa coverage - as I do - and I can no longer point the majority of my readers to the source material so they can read my analysis, I’m likely to link to an unlocked copy. Dave Winer built a tool that allowed people to link to the unlocked NYTimes back in paywall days for the reasons I’m citing here. I can imagine this situation changing somewhat if bloggers are paid a referral for sending new subscribers, but I doubt it will stop the problem of people trying to create a parallel newsfeed…)

The second problem is a larger one, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that there’s as much demand for smart, well-reasoned, serious reporting as we’d hope. I think it’s worth entertaining the possibility that there’s a small, elite group that already subscribes to the Economist, focuses on international and serious political issues, discusses and blogs about these things, that would be sure to pay for the content… if libertarian, free content sensibilities don’t get in the way.

There’s a larger group of people who read the NYTimes now because they can, because it’s free and because other people link to it. If it ceased to be accessible, they’re likely to get their news via Google or Yahoo, which will now be aggregating wire stories published in smaller newspapers. Their information environment will be much poorer, but I’m not convinced that they’ll be willing to address that situation.

The worry for me is this - I fear that an elite, Economist-style media may be the only way to finance media as ad and subscription models fall apart. But we run the risk that we end up with a badly bifurcated discussion, with a small group arguing about one set of issues with one set of data and a larger group talking about what they’re able to get via free means. This obviously happens right now, but at least it’s possible to cross the camps and check what the other side is saying. What happens when Rush Limbaugh tells his listeners that the NYTimes is saying something, and few if any listeners are willing to pay to see whether he’s even reporting correctly on what the Times said?

I understand the forces that are leading newspapers to consider models like this. But I think we’d be vastly better off with media financed either through some form of taxation ala BBC or via philanthropic largess - both of which are guaranteed to introduce biases and conflicts - than to accept a model in which most people won’t have access to the best media. I’m not convinced that there’s enough demand for people to scale the paywall, and I worry that the techniques to let media filter from behind the paywall into mainstream conversation are poorly developed and ineffective.

As usual, Ethan raises critical issues, though his Likely Outcome 1 troubles me less than Outcome 2. Some thoughts:

The workarounds would undoubtedly spring up, and they'd carve away a certain amount of traffic from the "official" site. But the kinds of people who would pay $10 a month for this aggregation are probably the kinds of people who'd pay anyway even if they could get some individual stories free, because 32 or 33 cents a day is trivial compared to the convenience they'd get.

If NewJournCo was smart about it, the entity would have just enough tolerance of workarounds to see them as promotion, at least to some degree. They might bring about more paying customers.

Ethan's second issue, as he notes, is the bigger one. I don't agree with him that there's not a sufficient market for "smart, well-reasoned, serious reporting" to support this entity.

I do agree that the elitism issue, the risk of a bifurcated conversation, is worrisome. But I'd ask two questions of my own. First, what if the economic crunch causes these organizations individually to cut back on their journalism, as it's already done to some degree (though not to the same degree as less prominent news orgs)?

Second, why would this necessarily lead to a situation in which the bulk of the population didn't know the truth of what Rush Limbaugh was alleging? For one thing, the NY Times (in his example) could easily post what it had actually said as a response, assuming his assertion took place during the three-day (or however long) paywall period. And after that time, the full story would be available for anyone to see. I don't see how the discussion remains all that bifurcated.

I'm not talking about a model where "most people don't have access to the best media," but rather one where they have second-hand access for a brief period and first-hand access thereafter. To me this is far preferable to government financing, which raises enormous risks of different kinds that I'm not willing to take.

Doc Searls thinks my semi-modest proposal is coming at a real problem from an inapt direction:

I pay to get the Wall Street Journal’s paper edition, and more on top of that for their online edition. I am also a non-paying “member” of many papers’ websites. Based on loads of icky experience, I believe that both the paywall and the subwall (the subscriber wall) are huge value-subtracts for the papers and their readers. I hate both walls, and I’m the kind of guy who *likes* to support these institutions.

I see nothing, in all of mainstream journalism, that tells me that any major publication wants to make it easy for me to read their work. The current fashion is to run every story in tiny type (a default with blogs now too), to clutter the crap out of the index page, and to split every article into many pieces to make sure the reader’s eyes get dragged across as much advertising as possible.

I know one journalist, a reporter for a large old paper, who has sent me many emails of woe recounting fights with “designers” of awful websites and CMSes (content management systems) straight from the lowest rings of hell. It’s gonna be hard to get these leopards to change their spots. In fact, I think the only way to get them to change is by showing them the money they’re leaving on the table.

I think you’re trying to herd horses escaped from many barns back into one big one. Or, to leverage the agricultural metaphor, into one big silo. I don’t think it would work. In fact, I don’t think *any* scarcity play will work. I also agree with the other stuff Ethan said along those same lines in his response.

You’re still coming from the right place with this, which is recognizing that journalistic goods are worth more than nothing, even though that’s what publishers and broadcasters are currently charging for them (at least online), and what people are paying as well.

I don’t think the answer to this problem can come from inside the industry. I think it has to come from the outside – from the customers’ side. That’s the angle we’re taking with ProjectVRM, in particular with PayChoice, currently described as a buy-side system “by which readers, listeners and viewers can quickly and easily pay for the goods they use - on their own terms, and not just those of suppliers’ arcane systems.”

Take a look at what we’re doing with PayChoice, Media logging, r-button and Listen Log. Links:

<
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/PayChoice>

<
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Media_Logging>

<
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/R-button>

<
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Listen_Log>

The first Listen Log is called ListenLog, and it is being developed right now for the Public Radio Tuner, a product of PRX and friends:

<
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/ListenLog>

Here’s the tuner:

<
http://www.publicradiotuner.com/>

More than 700,000 of these things have been downloaded from iTunes so far. It’s usually among the top free downloads (it was #2 most of last week). Among actually useful third party applications for the iPhone, it may already be #1 overall. And it’s only been around since January.

The ListenLog will be open source, like much of the other work with the tuner. Some of its methods, features and technology pieces should be applicable to newspapers, magazines, podcasts and other journalistic products (at least in the forms that appear online). Why not log, and then pay for, what we read on our hand-helds as well as what we listen to or watch? In fact I expect to see development moving in that direction, because we have an active and growing community of programmers and technologists, most of them volunteers, working on this thing already.

I highly recommend that everybody read Kevin Kelly’s “Better than Free.”
He begins by saying “The internet is a copy machine,” and unpacks a number of points implied by that claim. He even takes JZ’s adjective, “generative,” and treats it as a noun, listing eight “generatives.”

About one of those, “patronage,” Kevin writes, “It is my belief that audiences WANT to pay creators. Fans like to reward artists, musicians, authors and the like with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect. But they will only pay if it is very easy to do, a reasonable amount, and they feel certain the money will directly benefit the creators.” This desire to reward creators is what we call MLOTT: Money Left On The Table. And it’s what we’re addressing specifically with PayChoice and the rest of the stuff I described above.

Forgive me if I seem to be getting carried away, but I’m excited about what we’re doing, and its prospects for journalism. It’s a snowball that’s starting to roll downhill. I’d rather bet on that than on any big rock an old industry has to push uphill.

As noted above, I love what Doc is doing. It's pathbreaking, important work that I hope has a prominent place in our future.

I hope, as well, that it's one of many models we try. We need as many experiments in business models as in journalism-creation models.

OK, enough from us, if you've gotten this far. Your turn now...

(Photo by Dan4th via Flickr)

71

  1. So you’re saying you want a totalitarian state with single source news?

    Are you nuts?

    Maybe you think you’re not suggesting a totalitarian state?

    Wow! The proper role of a democratic government includes preventing exactly this!

    Not only do you want to have a single source for news, you also want to charge for it.

    What is this doing on Boing Boing? Is it supposed to show us the problem of this way of thinking?

  2. Here’s one issue I don’t think you addressed:

    Assuming this is a for-profit entity that’s being created, you start with $1B revenue and $1B cost supporting all the existing newsrooms, which presumably will continue to cover what they cover now — offering duplication of effort but also some level of multiple perspectives on major events.

    But then this entity looks at itself and its stakeholders look at their portfolios and everyone asks, “Hey, we’ve got redundancy here, get rid of some of it and we can start making a profit.” And we’re off to the races on a downward quality spiral.

  3. http://www.pressdisplay.com/

    This outfit is mostly on the right track. The way the newspapers are presented/displayed on eReaders is still stuck in the 20th century: a large broadsheet that looks like the paper, er, paper…that your have to zoom in on, and move around.

    It should be more like a website: main page with click able main headlines, click able sections of the paper, a list of articles with a sentence or two (all configurable from a preferences / watch list). And the articles HAVE to be contiguous.

    At $29.92 a month for any and all newspapers in the world? I’d subscribe!
    http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/helpandsupport.aspx?subpage=PressdisplaySubscriptionPlans

  4. @Scottros, who says only 2 million would subscribe? That feels like a low number to me. And I suspect my cost estimate for the production is high, anyway. I haven’t run spreadsheets on this, however….

  5. Oh, what a phenomenally bad idea, for the reasons Zuckerman raises and so many more. And really, what we need, as a society, is to put more barriers between news and the general public. Because the public is already clearly far too well served by it current consumption.

    Christ. Dan, I think you’re a brilliant fellow and very much understand the value of exploring unlikely alternatives, but this is just . . . yeah, no good words for it.

  6. The simple fact is that there is a lot of important journalism that needs serious money behind it to get done. Period. There is also a real need for some standard of journalistic credentials. Bloggers are great for the type of stuff that typically ends up in the ‘local’ section of a newspaper, assuming the area population is big enough to support a critical mass of bloggers. However, individuals simply don’t have the resources to do long term investigative journalism.

    Let’s say that a blogger, working for free, spends six months tracking down a story. It costs them thousands in FOIA fees and hundreds of hours. At the end of the day,they toss up a groundbreaking and influential investigation on their blog. Now, even if every other blog in existence links to them do you think their google ads are going to even recoup costs and living expenses? If journalism as a business dies, do you honestly expect these types of investigations to ‘just happen’?

    The next time there is a major war, who gets access to the soldiers and the front lines? Does the army give anyone who shows up with a camera and a laptop a press badge?

    Our society is build with an assumption of large, serious journalism and news sources acting as a check and balance on almost every other facet of society. If we don’t plan for how to transition these types of things to new media realities and instead just let them die it is going to come back to haunt us.

  7. Considering that US journalism has missed the two biggest stories of the last decade, the utter falsity of the Iraq War and the Ponzi scheme nature of the financial sector, I don’t know if “quality” journalism actually exists here. If you wanted to go farther, you could make the argument that US journalism actively aided and abetted a war of aggression, torture, and said financial chicanery. You could even argue that US journalism deserves to fail because of it.

    On the other hand, if you want US journalism to survive on the Web, put out a begging bowl. Just ask for contributions. I did that in the 1990s with a listserv and each year the contributions to my begging bowl doubled. If I’d kept it up, I’d have a nice middle class living by now. Ask for contributions to do your core competency and then charge people for special access and build a special relationship with that community, and I do mean treat that group as your community.

  8. Well, I wouldn’t pay for it.

    if anything it’d probably boost places like boingboing, and other alternative news agencies.

    I think a big conglomerate of news is a way bad idea.

    Fox, CNN, BBC, MSNBC how can they combine?

    I enjoy the diversity of views, and the ability to chose which one to watch.

    I dont wanna see a watered down merger between NYT and Wahington post, or whatever.

    its probably against anti trust laws, which R Murdock spent the bush years lobbying to have removed, successfully.

    I want freedom of information, free internet, I pay for and watch BBC news and CNN and CNNs adverts, so do plenty million others.

    I think its a bad idea which would make news more centralised and controlled by some board of directors, which would crush the BBC or CNNs current sprit in which they report… which I frankly enjoy.

  9. The antitrust they are willing to negotiate involves the monopoly of a single newspaper in one region due to merging of two papers not a single news source for the country. I’d probably just start reading from British sources if this happened. I mean if anything really critical happened it would be on the international news—my friends family calls from Greece whenever we get a big snowstorm here.

  10. One huge problem with this whole concept – almost nobody seems to be particularly interested in good journalism anymore. The public doesn’t demand it, so they aren’t likely to provide it.

  11. No one’s mentioned the DOJ or anti-trust legislation that will have to be snapped in half like Glass-Stegall, to make this work.

    That or the government will have to passively license this new entity by deciding not to sue or intervene in its design, which de facto creates state licensing of journalists.

    Not to mention the legislator you’ll now cede control of the news to: ISPs who’ll judge whether NewJournCo is nice enough to Comcast or ATT or any one of their other friends. If Net Neutrality doesn’t go away by the creation of this entity, it sure as hell will get a pillow in its face, as soon as ISPs wake up to how much power they’ll get, if they work at it.

  12. I’ve got free news everywhere I turn. I’m not gonna pay for it.
    We love our daily newspaper for local stuff (I delivered it as a boy!), and we’ll buy it as long as it’s available.
    The news printers have had years to prepare for the social changes brought about by the internet. If they don’t have some plan for survival, they probably won’t.

  13. Slashdot has voluntary subscription.

    I pay green for Cory’s books, when I could read them for free.

    Capitalism works. But it only works FOR YOU when you are selling something people want to buy, and the papers these days are going down the toilet because they have forgotten that simple fact.

    If people don’t want the dumbed-down one-way propaganda tube the papers are currently trying to sell, they die (or get a taxpayer-funded bailout, in non-capitalist systems such as Reaganomics.)

  14. @GMOKE – I think that’s a model that helped launch one of the best political news sites out there – Talkingpointsmemo.com. They seem to be thriving on ad revenue these days, hiring more and more people, and providing me with more useful news than the Washington Post.

  15. Essentially what this would do is ensure that none of these companies survive. You create a channel that is off limits (the internet) for a few days. It takes one rogue company (ie the AP) or a start-up to decide to subvert this regime and do the first rate journalism for free. They steal all the traffic (and ad revenue) from the subscription based NewJournCo and capture the market share. NewJournCo either opens up or becomes obsolete.
    News thrives on its ability to get to the person consuming it first. News, in economic terms, is an indifferent good, like corn. I, as a consumer, don’t care where it comes from so long as it’s accurate. Unless you can enforce every journo that isn’t spouting lies to join the NewJournCo then it will fail.

  16. Definitely a provocative and well-considered post. But look at this from the Internet perspective, not the Journalism perspective, for a moment.

    One thing consistent about the net virtually from inception is that as soon as a popular site has the slightest change to make it harder or more complicated or whatever, something pops up to replace it almost overnight. Yahoo. Napster. Friendster. MySpace.

    My fear is that your super company will simply be replaced by some new media willing to lose money “just to get some eyeballs.” Then after the supercompany dies or gives up, the new media changes and is replaced by the newer media. And so on.

    What’s wrong with this, you might ask? Well, I think venerability is good. I think the longevity of news organizations contributes to their quality and consistency.

    What’s scary is, I think the above scenario might happen anyway. What I’m trying to brainstorm is a way to keep the old venerable places alive while still encouraging innovation etc.

    I wonder, as newspapers die, where will what little ad revenue they still collect go? Where will full-page fashion display ads and legal notices be published? Will the survivors of the initial die-off feast on the corpses of the newspapers that died before them?

  17. One of Zuckerman’s paragraphs struck me as particularly demonstrative of poor assumptions.

    There’s a larger group of people who read the NYTimes now because they can, because it’s free and because other people link to it. If it ceased to be accessible, they’re likely to get their news via Google or Yahoo, which will now be aggregating wire stories published in smaller newspapers.

    This is what most people who rail against big news seem to envision happening: The collapse of the mainstream news goliaths while the news infrastructure keeps on churning away like nothing has happened. It’s OK if the New York Times and the rest collapse or are forced completely behind a pay wall just to keep basic operations running. After all, Routers and the AP will keep pumping out free news for everyone!

    Any business realities that force the NY Times to collapse or go exclusive pay will have long since eliminated all the little local papers. Routers and the AP and all the other newswire services don’t do it for free. If no one is paying for their services, no stories will be published. And without all the small town papers or the NYT or the rest, who pays? Google and Yahoo? You really think having Google and Yahoo as the major financiers of news would be any different than the big news conglomerate that is proposed here?

    And that is assuming that the big online portals are interested in financing the worlds reporting for nothing beyond ad views. Even if they are, how much trust can be placed on a news source that is entirely sponsorship supported?

    We need to come up with a method of directly paying for our reporting or we are going to lose it.

  18. The companies wouldn’t have to form one big company, just use the same “news gatekeeper” company. People *use* Paypal. They don’t join the company.

    You could also do some creative things like let blogs link to specific *pages* of stories (doesn’t New Republic do something like this?). To get the full story you’d need to have a membership and be charged a micropayment.

    The problem I can imagine is that these companies would have the resources to run a scoop, but then organizations outside of the firewall could just piggyback on the scoop, right? Then you run into the music industry’s problems with Napster, don’t you? “Information wants to be free and information wants to be expensive…” said Steward Brand. We still haven’t figured that one out…

  19. Fropm the post: NPR’s brilliant explainer of the housing bubble

    That was PRI, and that’s a distinction with a difference in this context.

    Great post!

  20. Part of the problem is that good journalism isn’t always the most popular form of news. People might pay for what they want, but sometimes it’s the duty of the press to tell them what they don’t want to hear.

    This problem is most apparent in television news, which has been gradually decreasing in quality (if not quantity) ever since the networks ceased viewing their news programs as a public service and started seeing them as just another profit center.

    PBS had a great “Frontline” series called “News War” that delved into this quite well.

  21. Meh. If this happened then it would become a game to steal & leak any content before it became free.

  22. Putting new news behind a pay wall will mainly encourage free competition on the internet, starting with specialized sites like Talking Points Memo. This are sites with lower overhead costs that have to gain trust the old fashion way with good content. I’m not sure that this isn’t a good thing. The big money days of the past will be gone replaced by some new alignment. I don’t think I’ll mourn it, I don’t think news reporters are mourning engineering and manufacturing work being moved to India and China.

    When the NYTimes hid their columists behind a paywall there was a loss of influence for the NYTimes on the web, if you can’t link to them you don’t and they become unnecessary.

    I’m pretty sure that medium and large market newspapers will dwindle away. My local paper (Raleigh News and Observer) seems to be shrinking itself out of existence. Every month another page is cut, consolidated, combined, and another reporter is let go. At some point the content will no longer be useful to me because it will consist mainly of AP stories, comic, and TV listings that I can get from Google.

    The only remaining papers will be the very local neighborhood and small town papers whose content is not available from the AP. Where else will you clip the photo of your Son or Daughter holding that award.

  23. @RyanH Who is going to report the wars? What about local people?

    The imperialistic view that only an English speaking person embeded with an invading army can report the news truthfully is an outdated, reactionary idea.

    The Vietnam war and other conflicts didn’t require army permission to report it. That you think journos need to ask the army permission in order to tell a history tell us all what we need to know about how co-opted journalism in western countries is.

    As for the idea of Mr Guillmor, I would not call it a thought experiment, more like a brain fart: most “news” nowadays are press releases either by governments, corporations or NGOS, we also have press conferences, parliamentarian discussions, and in the low end of the spectrum crime reporting and gossip.

    All what passes for serious news is intrinsically a matter of public interest, so I want to see how does Mr Guillmor think that governments would be able to justify to talk to only a selected few rather than to all of us. So government and political news are completely uncoverable using this, er, “idea”, because somebody would be sued sooner rather than later for cossying up to a select few.

    As for private press releases, gossip, crime and other newsworthy issues, please pray tell me, how would you stop people leaking the news?

    This idea is so derided that I frankly fail to understand how anybody serious can give it any credence (trolling day Mr G?).

  24. Granted this is probably stated above, so let me reiterate. I think that if I were to got to one of the sites I lurk to find news throughout the day and they wanted duckets I would just go elsewhere.
    And that free content void would be filled by yet anoter entrepenurial dev type and then all the users would go there and the pay site would see massive drop off.

  25. So many people with opinions about the future of news and reporting… yet so few who can be bothered to RTFP.

  26. Great article with interesting insights.

    Have you given any thought to an open model where news is aggregated and the public/consumer/subscriber may vote on what is most relevant so that the cream rises to the top?

  27. @dan — ummmm…. yahoo newspaper consortium?

    @GMOKE — the begging bowl you’re describing is pretty much the model of public media like npr and pbs. we’ve got that, and it fills a niche of a certain size in the infoscape.

    which is pretty much what this proposal would empower by creating a void in free content: a more powerful and robust public news media or, shudder, a more powerful and robust state-run news agency. because when the bombs are about to fall, or the tornado is heading for your neighborhood, the pay for breaking news idea falls apart.

    general news information/content is simply not that exclusive or inherently valuable. it is the service provided by the publisher that has differentiating value. Here to fore, that service has been in production, packaging and delivery; the technology to create and distribute news products was very expensive and therefore the products were valuable to audiences and advertisers. as new technology shrinks the margin between consumer and producer, the value proposition and perception has changed.

    the means of distributing news electronically has been in the control of the AP for a very long time, and a large network of b2b consumers and providers developed on that membership platform where the last mile was a print delivery or local broadcast product that had geographic franchise. the Internet’s primary shell shock to all such business models is that it destroys middleware – franchisers, retailers, etc — and connects producers more directly to consumers.

    seriously, when the AP sold previously member-exclusive content to online pure players, that was the meteor that hit the news planet and started the path to extinction. look at the state of the news pew report and see that the main news sites online are all aggregators of wire and legacy content that have created bottomless advertising inventory and destroyed pricing rates. newspapers and other legacy media in their entrance online did not protect their core business – advertising- and actually outsourced it to the competition, selling remnant ad network banners and partnering with online verticals.

    there is journalistic content in the marketplace that consumers pay for on a per product basis: books, documentaries, and the like. like enterprise stories or series or major packages, these products have higher information value and exclusivity.

    when the low hanging fruit falls from the tree, you just can’t come up with a way to charge for it. you have to manage the value.

    if you can put the genie back in the bottle, you might be able to preserve a shred of the old days. the press could tell the AP to stop selling the content and make it exclusive to their products again, since they are the MEMBERS of the association. that is the only real way i can see to do it.

  28. There is an old adage about how, in advertising, only half of the money you spend is accomplishing anything but you can’t tell which half.

    This adage probably applies to print media better than any other ad-sponsered media.

    With any luck(boingboing, Federated Media, even evil websites like Hulu.com) will receive the money that doesn’t get spent on print media.

    My favorite “journalists” don’t need publications: their best, most thoughtful work gets printed anyway. For example, if boingboing.net somehow became insolvent, Cory Doctorow wouldn’t need to worry about finding a job.

  29. I’d say this proposal, if taken seriously by the majority of journalists, proves they were never really serious about the whole “comfort the afflicted” and “an informed people are necessary for a democracy” spiels. They just wanted a paycheck.

  30. @dan — ummmm…. yahoo newspaper consortium?

    @GMOKE — the begging bowl you’re describing is pretty much the model of public media like npr and pbs. we’ve got that, and it fills a niche of a certain size in the infoscape.

    which is pretty much what this proposal would empower by creating a void in free content: a more powerful and robust public news media or, shudder, a more powerful and robust state-run news agency. because when the bombs are about to fall, or the tornado is heading for your neighborhood, the pay for breaking news idea falls apart.

    general news information/content is simply not that exclusive or inherently valuable. it is the service provided by the publisher that has differentiating value. Here to fore, that service has been in production, packaging and delivery; the technology to create and distribute news products was very expensive and therefore the products were valuable to audiences and advertisers. as new technology shrinks the margin between consumer and producer, the value proposition and perception has changed.

    the means of distributing news electronically has been in the control of the AP for a very long time, and a large network of b2b consumers and providers developed on that membership platform where the last mile was a print delivery or local broadcast product that had geographic franchise. the Internet’s primary shell shock to all such business models is that it destroys middleware – franchisers, retailers, etc — and connects producers more directly to consumers.

    seriously, when the AP sold previously member-exclusive content to online pure players, that was the meteor that hit the news planet and started the path to extinction. look at the state of the news pew report and see that the main news sites online are all aggregators of wire and legacy content that have created bottomless advertising inventory and destroyed pricing rates. newspapers and other legacy media in their entrance online did not protect their core business – advertising- and actually outsourced it to the competition, selling remnant ad network banners and partnering with online verticals.

    there is journalistic content in the marketplace that consumers pay for on a per product basis: books, documentaries, and the like. like enterprise stories or series or major packages, these products have higher information value and exclusivity.

    when the low hanging fruit falls from the tree, you just can’t come up with a way to charge for it. you have to manage the value.

    if you can put the genie back in the bottle, you might be able to preserve a shred of the old days. the press could tell the AP to stop selling the content and make it exclusive to their products again, since they are the MEMBERS of the association. that is the only real way i can see to do it.

  31. @inkstain, give us a break. people gotta eat. time is valuable. and freedom isn’t free. there is nothing wrong with working for a living, and making a living doing something worthwhile is an admirable pursuit.

  32. This idea is a fun thought experiment but it fails because of one Truth:

    Information wants to be free.

  33. “@inkstain, give us a break. people gotta eat. time is valuable. and freedom isn’t free. there is nothing wrong with working for a living, and making a living doing something worthwhile is an admirable pursuit.”

    Absolutely. I happen to make a scant living in newspapers myself. But there are limits, especially in a profession that likes to spout some lofty ideals.

  34. I think you are vastly underestimating a few forces.

    1) Get out your lawyer army. If by some magic you were able to make a massive media cartel that cuts off all sources of news to those who don’t pay, the results wont be as trite as a few bloggers copying and pasting articles. A free industry will spring up the very next day that automatically copies each and every single web page from the cartel and reposts it for free with add revenue serving to bring in the cash.

    Everyone would go to this site(s).

    Your only defense against this is to crack out an army of lawyers and let the blood fly. It isn’t a battle you are going to win, if for no other reason that unless every nation in the world recognizes the right of your cartel to hold information for ransom, someone is going to post it somewhere where it is legal, and short of massive government firewalls and the constant efforts of lawyers, the information is going to leak instantaneously and be organized into a pleasing format that people will happily take over shelling out cash to the cartel.

    2) If by some magic you managed to bottle up the information such that the cartel could function, you will be hated on a level that would make the RIAA, Newscorp, and Microsoft look like saints on par with the Red Cross. People, as a rule, hate cartels, and they hate them for a very good reason. Cartels exist for the singular reason of trying to manipulate the forces of supply and demand for the benefit for the supplier and the pain of the consumer. Now, you want to set up an information cartel that tries to control the flow of the most basic news and information passing around the world? Ha! You better firebomb proof your windows and start paying out serious government bribes to keep the people from tearing you apart limb from limb, if not physically, than via the ballot box.

    3) You would do nothing good for the media. If by some miracle your army of lawyers stamped out the copyright infringes, firewalled the internets of your consumer nations so they can’t rout around the laws, and you bribed enough governments such that they don’t dismantle your cartel in horror at the concentration of information in the hands of a single organization, we would still be left with nothing good. So people in the news media would be get a pay raise.

    Woop-dee-fucking-do. It isn’t going to elevate media to new levels.

    The stories that people are most interested in are still going to receive the most money. Good expensive journalism will still still be expensive and have a small readership. The equation isn’t going to change. A local reporter reporting on who celebrity X is screwing is still going to attract a greater return on the investment than sending someone into a war zone.

    Thankfully, I don’t live in much fear of your horror show of an information cartel idea. Short of restructuring the internet into a giant anti-copyright machine, hiring a lawyer army, and cooping all of governments of the liberal democracies in the world to accept an information cartel, this isn’t going to happen.

  35. @25 TZCTLP:
    If citizen journalism is to be the future, we are still in need of some tech advancements before this is adequate.

    Yes, an Iraqi in Bagdad can tell us what he sees, and an Iraqi in Falujah can tell us what she sees, and another in Tikrit can tell us what he sees. But without some way of harmonizing this information and verifying it against other posts (which may corroborate or contradict each other), it winds up being just a bunch of noise.

    Add to that the voice of an Afghani blogger, and a US soldier blogging from the battleship he’s stationed on, and his parents back home blogging about how much they miss him, and some guy in France with a really well-reasoned opinion on the US wars in the Middle East, and you have the potential for almost infinitely deep reportage. But it needs to be aggregated in some coherent way to be of any use to anyone who doesn’t want to spend 20 hours a day reading blogs. Or to anyone who is interested in learning abut more than one subject.

    This can and probably will happen — the natural language applications needed to do things like this are in development — but I think we’re a few years away from this being a viable plan.

  36. It’s really to late for this to work. All that will happen is folks will go back to television to get their current news, blogs and bloggers will become more of a primary source of news, and/or people will not care about how current their news is.

    Once something is (generally) free, it’s going to be a losing battle to get folks to start suddenly paying for it. The only example I can think of off-hand where this actually worked is bottled water.

  37. NO silver bullets, but the model that I find most exciting is the idea of creating a private, nonprofit foundation with a sufficiently large endowment to fully fund, in full and in perpetuity, an independent, top-quality, nonpartisan news organization in the public interest, big enough to field an international team of journalists, to attract the best and the brightest in the field.

    Which, in turn, will offer news free to the public, free for nonprofit reuse, using the Internet as its exclusive distribution medium.

    Open News Network. Always ONN.

  38. Yes, Rationalist. I think Pro Publica is aiming at that. The trick, however, is keeping the organization aligned with its initial reasons for existence. Not sure how to manage that.

  39. Ah, should have checked first, Open News Network is an existing trade name and domain.

    The idea of a permanently endowed, professional, independent, news-in-the-public-interest organization remains valid.

    Dan, didn’t you propose something along these lines at some point?

  40. Love the picture — I’m not even from Boston, but I recognized it immediately from visits — that news stand is right outside the Harvard “T” station.

  41. Citizen journalism may be the future for mass quantity of news but certainly not for quality of news. We’ll always need experts in their fields to analyze and explain big ideas to those of us that aren’t expert in those fields. Tweets, YouTube videos, and Wikis aren’t going to do that. And if you think they will, then allow me access to the expert analysis and you can have the anonymous blogs.

    I don’t know that this specific idea is the right approach, but I do believe that news organizations are not going to survive by just giving away all their content and running crappy display ads next to the articles. News organizations are going to have to have paid content. Showing paid subscribers content before it becomes freely available is certainly one way to differentiate the two.

  42. Here we go again.

    Every time some industry comes to the end of its life the cheerleaders come out and tell us how the world can’t get along without their glorious services.

    “Oh heavens, how will we ever go on without the wonderful buggy whip?”

    Spare me. If people want those services they will pay for those services. Its pretty obvious people don’t want the services.

    As the saying goes ‘peddle your papers somewhere else.’

  43. This would promise to be an interesting, but very brief interlude in the ongoing “intellectual property” / “piracy” wars. I wouldn’t expect it to last two weeks. The toothpaste is out of the tube already.

  44. Buggy whips again? Here we go again is right.

    At the very least, would the unimaginative, short-sighted, market-fundamentalists please come up with a new metaphor? Were buggy whips the *only* industry to ever go out of business in the entire history of capitalism? You’d think so, because it’s the only one that is ever referenced.

    The fact that the myth that anything produced by the free market is virtuous still persists in this day and age is proof that people will believe *anything* they are taught in sixth-grade social studies for the rest of their life.

  45. I think the successful ideas will be less about creating artificial scarcity and more about generating trust & brand identification.

    I like to champion the idea of metered content, which I keep blogging about so I’m a little bit like a dog with a bone here, but the idea is pretty fantastic: it’s a paywall that charges for *amount* of content consumed, not *what* content is consumed.

    None of this “you can’t see this content unless you pay” stuff. Everything is available for conversation, linking, sharing, seeing, immediacy, etc.

    What you pay for–what you mostly volunteer to pay for–is to read TONS of a particular news brand. Say the limit is 45 articles per month. Most people don’t read the same news source that much, and if they did, they’d probably be willing to volunteer some support.

  46. If people want those services they will pay for those services.
    So if people don’t want to pay for something it’s useless?

  47. Dan Gilmore wrote:
    “@Stephen, I didn’t say anything remotely like what you said. Did you actually read it?”

    I did read it. It seems to me you are suggesting the idea of finding a small group of sources that do the bulk of english language reporting/journalism, rather than pre-packaged news, and getting them into a single consortium with a single set of rules and a single price structure. This requires a single management. Since news is ultimately controlled not by journalists but by management, your plan results in the bulk of good english language reporting being responsible to a single management structure (inevitably a US dominated management structure). This creates a one stop shop for financial influence over the bulk of the remaining large independent journalism in the english speaking countries.

    You’re also proposing a price based inequality in information such that money buys timeliness of information. Cost of information is one of the factors which prevents markets from working efficiently and causes an increased centralization of capital.

    It seems to me that the results of these two factors would (almost inevitably) be the beginning of a more formalized US empire with a centralized ministry of information.

  48. I lived in the same neighborhood as this news store. As a Canadian I was appalled that this so-called “International” news store did not carry the Globe and Mail.

    I’m going back in a few weeks to visit and I’ll check to see if they still lack this world class newspaper.

  49. I read a few weeks back that the “Out Of Town News” kiosk in Harvard Square, the one in the picture, was closing after decades as a local landmark.

    Any Cantabrigians out there with information about that?

  50. I was prepared to give a whole lot of critiques about the specific idea, but the fact is that, as in so many areas of public life (politics and economics and the environment being the most prominent), we first need to change our basic and long-held assumptions. For example, in regard to journalism:

    1. Journalism does not need to be published on expensive presses or broadcast over expensive equipment to be considered “quality”.

    2. The best journalism is that which is de-coupled, or at least highly alienated from, supporting advertising revenues.

    3. Quality journalism depends on the ability to research well, to write and edit with style, to develop areas of expertise. There are plenty of people out there who can do all of that themselves. What they generally lack are marketing channels and the resources to actually dedicate a few days to cover a story.

    4. When it comes to journalism, “authoritative” and “trusted” doesn’t equate to “supported by a big for-profit organisation.” Credibility is granular in this case.

    I’m sure Mr. Gillmor is with me on those. But taking these as givens, the sort of large for-profit centralised cartel of incumbent corps you describe won’t necessarily produce quality product.

    Now, one or more such organisations could play the same distribution/marketing role as a record label or a film “studio” (basically acting as banks, distributors, aggregators, and promoters). But the people who produce the quality product they distribute won’t necessarily have gone to J-school, or even be full-time professional writers/photogs/etc.

    If you want (as I think you do) a place for professional full-time journalists, editors and producers to continue to make a living, you’re looking at non-profits dedicated to supporting them and producing quality journalism. That includes established orgs like PRI and PBS, or newcomers like Pro Publica and (in a more openly partisan vein) TheRealNews.com.

    The existing for-profits, either individually or in cartels, are not those places. Compromised as they are by advertisers, dependent as they are on access journalism and sensationalism to get their eyeballs, and hobbled as they are by America’s dysfunctional bigcorp culture, they become less and less friendly to quality journalism every day. The fact that MSM business models are collapsing might ultimately be a good thing for quality journalism.

    I can envision a lot of non-profits (existing or new, journalism focused or not) doing quality reporting. I can envision even more specialised one-person operations getting paid by various mechanisms (whether it’s a Paypal tip jar, Doc Searls’ PayChoice, or one of those distribution NewJournCos mentioned above). But making one or two big companies the basis of an industry is asking for big trouble.

    What I do think is worth exploring from your piece: the idea of journalists or their parent orgs putting full, original, professional reporting of breaking general stories (lots of adjectives there, for good reason) behind some sort of pay-access wall for 3 days or even a week (its monetary value window), and then releasing it to a distributed digital archive for free. Even then, it would be to everyone’s benefit if the hed, lede, or an abstract were released for free during the pay window. The window will have to be a lot wider for things like financial and consumer stories, and perhaps even wider for long-form analysis pieces.

    [I’ve deliberately left out op-ed, columns, reviews and other commentary from this discussion — it’s every pundit for himself there]

  51. What we need are grants… money that puts people, especially those with education to work solving societal/community problems. Not loans for entrepreneurs… grants for non-profits with socially redeeming value. And yes, I do think we could agree on what a socially redeeming value might be. News reporting is one. Day care is another. Affordable housing is one more. The list goes on. We could solve so many problems if we were given the chance to support ourselves solving them! Duh!!

  52. Ad revenue can have a negative impact on journalism. But the effect of outright ownership has been much more destructive. Google copied a stock offering by the Washington Post specifically designed to protect against the quarterly profit imperative. News venues which are not protected from the quarterly profit imperative inherently decay into marketing for themselves instead of reporting on the world; news is replaced with sensationalism or propaganda. We need a diverse market of ideas not another huge gatekeeper.

  53. I never got the impression that Dan’s “NewJournCo” was intended to be an info cartel, or THE info cartel. Rather, it would be a dozen or so respected papers (well, not papers) who pool their resources, and that they would be in competition with other similar organizations; Report Corp and Scoop Group and Newsgasm (or whatever the other gloms would call themselves).

    Then you might pay ten bucks a month for a scrip to NewJournCo, and Scoop Group might charge a similar fee for a similar (but not the same) service. Say, like, Newsweek vs. U.S. News. Rather than one giant infobong that says, “I’m your news, and that’s all, fuckers!” there would be several to choose from. You could subscribe to one, or a few, however you like.

    It’s just a few companies moving into one building, and not a forced migration of all the newspapers in the US into one giant hidden government news-bunker in the Nevada desert, and automatically charging your credit card for a newsfeed you can’t navigate away from (The Mister Moofoo Hyperbole Light is on).

    Or maybe I read it wrong.

  54. Sounds great to me! I’ve managed to almost completely wean myself off of newspapers and their websites, so if they were to put themselves behind a for-pay wall, even a tiny one, that would be just the incentive I need to give them up entirely. I figure I’d save maybe a couple hours per week.

  55. Information behaves as a virus. The net is the first transmission medium humans have created to facilitate this inherent behaviour. As soon as information exists within one part of the network it will eventually spread to other parts. attempts to segregate information are doomed to fail.
    Maybe it’s not the way in which information behaves that we should be seeking to change in order to capitalise from it. Rather we should seek to alter the ways in which we capitalise from information.

  56. You want me to pay for propaganda? Are you insane? I’d sooner pay someone to drill holes in my head for recreational purposes (and that isn’t my thing.)

  57. “NewJournCo” is designed to have a “critical mass” of timely information sufficient for it to be worth enough money to sustain itself on the fees from people who want better access to information. That requires enough concentration that customers can’t simply go somewhere else to get the same information for free. That means important information on an important scale is concentrated in the hands of a small management group and doled out to the rich for a fee. This is BAD. I’m not talk secret government bunker bad (though we’ve already see that in apparently normal phone companies. I’m talking centralized corporate control on an imperial scale bad. If he just means having another competitor to AP and Reuters, that’s fairly easy to describe and understand. But that doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying. I think he’s trying to make another Clear Channel, but to have it control most of the best remaining print journalists. For some reason he assumes it would be benign. I can’t fathom what that reason is.

  58. Information is power. Dan’s idea essentially centralizes the power and limits access to it to those willing to pay $520 annually. But aside from this being dangerous, it also doesn’t solve the problem of newspapers going out of business.

    Dan’s estimates of subscribers suggests that a) people don’t currently subscribe to multiple newspapers and b) people under his new plan wouldn’t share their access keys. Neither of these are true.

    Imagine that I live on the East coast and I buy the NYTimes, the WashPost, and I listen to NPR. Under his estimates, I am to become three subscribers. In reality, I would become maybe .25 subscribers, as I’d certainly share my access key (for my one subscription to the All-Seeing News Eye of Helm) with a friend.

    I like seeing ideas like this, and I appreciate the dialogue Dan is creating with this discussion. This idea is a nonstarter, though.

  59. Last week, I met with 6 of the news media’s professionals—Ed Felsanthal of the Daily Beast, Andres Martinez formerly of the Los Angeles Times, Steve Coll who has more than twenty years of experience with foreign correspondence, Tim Wu who developed Net Neutrality theory, Richard Tofel of ProPublica and John Thornton a venture capitalist—in a panel discussion at The New America Foundation about the future of media.

    If you go here:

    http://flypmedia.com/issues/plus/03/#1/1

    You can see the videos of what they had to say on the online magazine site, FLYP (www.flypmedia.com).

    Hopefully, we journalists will continue to have jobs. We just may need to redefine the mechanism for successful (and profitable) distribution of content.

    Amy Van Vechten
    Multimedia Producer
    http://www.flypmedia.com
    avanvechten@flypmedia.com

  60. I think this is one of the poorest ideas I’ve ever heard about making online media profitable.

    Before jumping into all these complicated and abstract schemes, maybe what is needed is further discussion and understanding of how traditional newspapers have historically made their money?

    From my understanding, it is mostly, primarily from advertising. Subscriptions, reader fees, are actually relatively irrelevant. In the existing model, subscribers serve as a means to prove to advertisers that the publication is valued, has a devoted, audited readership. THAT IT IS WORTH ADVERTISING IN. In short, readers ‘vote’ to support a publication and advertisers take note of that and ‘vote’ to buy advertising in the publication to reach those readers.

    This also explains the model of successful, profitable ‘free’ newspapers. Because they can prove their distribution, because they have obvious on-the-street visibility, devoted readers, etc, they are able to sell advertisements. The advertisements pay for the content. Individual readers are not charged. Yet these papers have been profitable.

    One thing to discuss: To what extent have these models developed as a cultural issue vs. an economic issue? (Free papers are usually ‘alternative’… they adapted that model specifically to undercut traditional, older, paid papers. Traditional ‘important’ newspapers like the NY Times seem to have a prejudice against ‘free content’… but exactly why?)

    On a related issue, it is clear that advertising has been the model for television profits. Even with cable, to what extent is content paid for by subscriber fees vs. all those ads? And why are there all those ads… isn’t it because the content, the channel, is drawing viewers to make the advertising space valuable to advertisers?

    Isn’t an online publication by definition a kind of hybrid between a newspaper and a tv channel?

    So… if this is all true… why is it assumed that a well-designed, well-promoted, well-written online publication supporting quality journalism (whatever EXACTLY that is) will be unable to attract a degree of readership that will draw enough advertisers to support itself?

    Certainly, given the evolving state of online advertising and online media the income and profits cannot be assumed to be comparable to the huge figures corporations like the NY Times are historically used to… But is that a fatal flaw?

    Aren’t we still talking about ONLINE?…there’s NO actual printing costs, no comparable distribution costs! The physical plant, the typesetting, the presses, the trucks, the newstands, etc. etc. Aren’t we talking about major infrastructure savings here?

    And maybe the idea that a serious newspaper can be and needs to be all things to all people… the one-stop community paper, the entertainment paper, the ‘paper of record’, the investigative paper, the neighborhood paper… is OVER.

    The suits running these dying newspapers, and journalists with old mind-sets, have to kiss that lucrative old model goodbye forever.

    Because nothing I’ve read proves to me that investigative journalism and political journalism (isn’t that the stuff we are really concerned about here?) can’t find a forum that CAN be profitable because it WILL attract enough readers (probably highly desirable ones, income-wise?)

    So maybe instead of trying to reinvent the business model wheel from scratch, there should be more focus on making the existing business model support the kind of online publications desired.

    What we don’t need is some consortium of deadwood corporations acting as a gatekeeper monopoly.

  61. I see a couple of problems:

    1. Assuming that the non-print media (e.g., CNN, CBS News, ABC News, Fox News) is still making money, they will be reporting on their broadcast outlets and using the internet to post the news they gather and link to their own shows (in furtherance of their advertising-supported model). If they do so for free, will there really be enough readers willing to pay premium prices for other outlets reporting much the same news? And if you think people will pay for the op-eds and other commentary — well, the NY Times showed what happens when you try that. (I opted not to pay, and frankly only missed Krugman.) It’s Gresham’s (revised) Law: Free news drives out for-pay.

    2. If the older news and commentary material is free, it becomes even easier to live with the free news from other sources, wait a few days and then catch up with the premium goods. I would think news organizations would spring up or adapt to market themselves as just that kind of bridging service: here’s the news now, folks, with links to be added to other premium content once it becomes free if you want to chase down other viewpoints.

    3. “News” itself is becoming increasingly fragmented. I might not get my sports news from any of CNN, CBS, ABC, FOX or another general news outlet. I’ll get it from ESPN or NFL.com or some other specialty website. I might not get my political news from them either, opting for Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo or Politico. Entertainment news? Dozens of providers. Comics and puzzles and coupons are readily available on the web, some having already moved from for-pay models. The generalist news monolith — unsupported by a large TV/radio arm — may simply not have adapted for the times and be headed for extinction.

  62. The fundamental economic problem for all forms of digital media is that there is no way to prevent an individual’s work from being copied and distributed. This applies to a song, a movie, a software or news articles.

    You can set up a “paywall” around a certain portion of a website but what’s to prevent someone from cutting and pasting that to another site? Or grabbing the media and posting it to a bit torrent?

    In essence, copyright has no meaning on the web (ie once it’s on-line anyone can copy and distribute) and it seems that any business model for news has to take this into account.

    This really only leaves advertising or philanthropy, neither of which can sustain multiple large news organizations like those that have existed in the past.

    I don’t think the situation will change unless authors, musicians and filmmakers have a way to regain control over the rights to their work.

    And for journalists the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the value of their work is directly tied to its timeliness.

  63. #1, wouldn’t it be more innovative to noodle ways this MO could work? Solutions, perhaps, to roadblocks, rather than echoing them?

    Consideration might also be given that the metros either in bankruptcy, near it, or already failed did so because of debt load, not lack of profitability. Mergers, acquisitions and bloated overhead at the top is a far greater weight than decreased ad revenue, declining subscriptions and increased production expense. The latter were straws fracturing the proverbial camels’ backs.

    It isn’t merely individuals and citizens allowed to borrow and borrow more without consequence, let alone thought of how or when that debt would be repaid. And whoever ordained that all Internet content must be free? Servers aren’t free. Online merchandisers don’t give away products. Why not a HuffPost-style digest–a news supermarket as it were–where overall, exclusive access is by subscription, then customers can pick variety-sourced news, op-ed, comics, classifieds, legals, syndicated columns, even sale ads, et al., to his or her heart’s content? 48 hrs. later, the digest has free access. If Amazon can block cut/paste on book content, so can the digest. Links to friends could be emailed, but access to the article/digest incurs a fee. Or 48 hrs. of patience.

    Journalists/professional writers/contributors would be paid via subscriptions. Ad revenue would tie to the free access, with a royalty share to the professional contributors. Hence, a new-fashioned newspaper syndicate.

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