In which yours truly saves the newspapers

Can Newspapers Survive? is the topic of my latest column, which, among other things, tackles the $64,000 question: how do you get people to pay for stuff they read online?   I have an answer.  Maybe.

Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time, recently got into the fray with a proposal to make web media content available for micropayments similar to iTunes… If you see a link to an interesting article on, say, The San Jose Mercury News website, you don’t have to buy a $20 subscription to the publication – you can pay a nickel or a dime to read the individual item.

While this is a promising idea, it has substantial drawbacks. Those nickels and dimes can add up, and if your monthly bill is high enough, you may think twice the next time you feel like clicking on a link.

A better approach may be to make news and analysis content available only through media portals or carriers, similar to cable television providers. A subscription to a carrier would give access to any news site (newspaper, magazine, blog) that is a part of its package.

Read the rest.  Add your thoughts, praise my acumen, or tell me why I’m so wrong it’s not even funny.


Filed under journalism, media

6 responses to “In which yours truly saves the newspapers

  1. DaveZ

    Ms. Young,

    I think a better vision of where news gathering, reporting and analysis will be in five years can be gleaned by looking at the state of financial news and analysis today. This is a market that was routinely (with the exception of the WSJ and other specialty publications) ignored by the mainstream newspapers of America (sure they had their “business sections,” but only someone who had absolutely no interest in business would ever spend the time to read them. Then the internet came, financial news, opinion and analysis on the internet exploded. For the most part, most of this content is free and at the most linked with an sitge-based advertising model of revenue. It is, however, different than traditional news sources. There is less “packaging” where one site, blog or posting will deliver preassembled, ready for consumption material. Readers have to pick and choose. Certain sites and/or posters achieve reputations much like the newspapers of yesterday did. Some are moderated and edited, others are not. Most writers/posters are involved in the industry in one way or another and contributing and interacting online is something they do because they enjoy doing so, it enhances their professional standing or for some other motive. Few, if any, do so for direct monitary reasons.

    I suspect regular news will behave similarly. The revenue models being discussed so far seemed doomed to fail: site advertising does not bring in enough revenue to support the current infrastructure involved in the business, pay fire-walls have not worked and, I believe, will never work, the iTune model has not generated enough interest to be actually tried by anyone yet, and paid portal sites have the same problems as the iTune model. The biggest problem is that a business model structured on the current news gather and reporting model will have to be able to compete with the blogs which have a vastly smaller cost footprint. I suspect that more and more much of the content generated will be by people otherwise involved somehow (but not as “reporters”) in that field who take the time to write for internet consumption. Will this change the flavor of news in this country? Absolutely. Will there be no news? Hardly. It will feel more like financial information, readers will have to hunt harder for sources of information, do more of their own packaging and sort out the analytical biases of the writers. But I suspect the amount of “news” (really information) on the internet will increase, rather than decrease, with the rising morbitity of the newspaper industry.

  2. Steve Toby

    Cathy, you are certainly not wrong. If we look back on history (something I like to do more and more as I age), we find that writers have always been divided into two types. One well-heeled type writes literature either for its own sake or to teach the public something he thinks they should know. In this group are Thucydides, Plato, and the nameless authors of the Bible. Clearly, newspaper reporters and editors are not like these people.

    The other group is writing to make a buck. I’m not sure about the very oldest literature — perhaps someone paid the author of Gilgamesh or at least dropped a few valuables into his hat when he recited at the court of Sargon of Akkad. (That was before money existed). But certainly, Homer earned his keep amusing people with his poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, as long ago as the 8th or 9th century BC. Shakespeare earned money from the production of his plays, and Jane Austen supported herself on the royalties from her romances. Had there been no income stream to support these great writers, whose production is now recognized as great literature although they themselves probably thought they were just earning a living, these plays, poems, and novels would not exist today.

    Providing an income stream to newspapers for online content is essential as more and more younger people get their news and commentary online without ever needing to hold the physical paper in their hands (and smudge themselves with the newsprint). It seems to me a pay-by-the-article system, while very fair, will have problems. The purveyors of internet music used to allow pay by the song and two of those providers went bankrupt while I was a subscriber. The surviving ones seem to be charging by the month with unlimited downloads, and that’s probably what would work best for newspapers, even though subscribers would pay more in most months than they would if they just read carefully selected articles.

    Clearly, free content, however much it helps the public, won’t be available for long if users turn away from the print media in favor of competition from its free oinline version. That just makes no economic sense. What was management thinking?

  3. Thanks, guys. 🙂 Just wanted to say I may not be able to reply to comments today since I’m working on deadline, but all comments are appreciated!

  4. Revenant

    I don’t see the future of newspapers including all the support personnel newspapers not employ — copy editors, fact-checkers, etc. The marginal benefit of employing them doesn’t seem to be worth the cost, especially on the internet.

  5. MoyCullen

    Hey Cathy,

    Well I certainly hope that newspapers survive. As valuable as blogs are, they are not a replacement. How effective could a blogger sitting in his/her home be without the newspaper industry at their disposal. I agree with your assessment that the per link or article charge is unfeasible. After one month of that, I’d be taking a second job to pay for my newspaper surfing. Your proposal of a portal similar to cable tv is an intriguing one and does appeal to me. Quite honestly, I never notice the ads on sites now so I really am getting something for nothing. In fairness, I understand there is a cost to producing what I am reading and I don’t object to paying a reasonable fee for it. However, assuming people are willing to pay for something they currently have for free because they ponied up money for cable tv isn’t quite an apples and oranges comparison. Free broadcast television was and continues to be extremely limited. Growing up, I had access to a handful of tv stations with bad reception. Cable tv brought something we didn’t have before in crystal clear reception, many more channels, premium channels with adult content, niche programming, etc. Simply asking the public to pay for the exact same content that they now access freely is a much tougher sell I think. In order for it to work, the industry will have to create a model that provides more than what we have now. The major hurdle would be getting the majority of publications on board because if only 20% of newspapers attempt to implement a pay system while the others remain free, people will likely abandon those that charge.


  6. Revenant

    Well I certainly hope that newspapers survive. As valuable as blogs are, they are not a replacement. How effective could a blogger sitting in his/her home be without the newspaper industry at their disposal.

    Why would bloggers be dependent on newspapers as opposed to the television and radio outlets that most people get their news from?

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