Saving Newspapers, Part MMIX: Collude and Conspire

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

So we're down to naked collusion?

That's the proposal from the NY Times' David Carr this morning, in his latest column about the crumbling business of newspapers, who begins:

Back when I was a young media reporter fueled by indignation and suspicion, I often pictured the dark overlords of the newspaper industry gathering at a secret location to collude over cigars and Cognac, deciding how to set prices and the news agenda at the same time.

It probably never happened, but now that I fear for the future of the world that they made, I'm hoping that meeting takes place. I'll even buy the cigars.

Boiling it down, Carr suggests these once-powerful news barons a) start charging online readers for the journalism; b) stop letting Google and other aggregators link to their work without some kind of financial arrangement in place; c) raise online advertising prices; and d) toss out a quaint law, the "Newspaper Protection Act of 1970," which let competing local newspapers combine business operations while keeping separate editorial staffs.

The holes in Carr's plan are, of course, huge. Among them: Some media companies would say thanks but no thanks, on the principle that their long-term prospects wouldn't be enhanced by virtually disappearing from public view. Then there's the non-trivial issue of whether Congress would pass a new law — almost certainly a necessity for such an arrangement — giving the industry the right to do what it would scream bloody murder if any other industry attempted. (Then again, the Newspaper Protection Act of 1970 was a flagrantly anti-competitive law that made a mockery of editorial writers' pronouncements in favor of free markets, not to mention their organizations' willingness to exercise actual free speech.)

Meanwhile, the CEO of Guardian Media Group's ContentNext (publisher of the excellent PaidContent and other properties) penned a few suggestions last week about how Silicon Valley and its culture could help in "Bring on the Techies" — with this notable line:

There are various ways that newspapers and Silicon Valley companies can work together to preserve graphical advertising rates, create scarcity and ensure that the age-old way of supporting content survives.

"Create scarcity?" Spoken like a CEO, who's really talking, just like Carr, about collusion.

PaidContent exists because it emerged in a world where there was little or no barrier to entry, a world of abundance. Creating scarcity is the process, in part, of erecting new barriers. No thanks.

Silicon Valley does have plenty to offer, but if the plan is to invent ways to stifle the world of information abundance, it's crazy — and wrong. (I know, that's not the aim. But it would be one effect.)

The issue is not saving newspapers. The issue is, among other things, seeing that good journalism survives. It's also about making sure that people who "consume" media demand better than they've been getting, by persuading them to become activists in the way they consume. I'll be talking more about all of this in upcoming posts.