Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Newspapers Await Genius: 2 of 2

When publishers are not blaming, they are waiting...waiting...watching...waiting.

As I recently ranted in part 1 of this, economic woes did not sneak up on them. The thundering, stomping reality shook them with the rest of the world over many decades. Yet today as in the past 15 years, newspapers retract or die, book houses combine or fold, and all feign surprise at what they claim are the sudden and inexorable attacks on their noble selves.

It is all too reminiscent of a Rockbiter scene from The Neverending Story, below.


Not everyone will sit and wait for the Nothing to take him away. Among papers at least, none seems to have the brilliant answer, a panacea. Yet many are slowly and haltingly trying or thinking about trying. Simplistically, they as a group seem to have decided that some form of micro-payment system is their best bet.

Papers were certainly clumsy and arrogant on payments from the beginning. Some dailies and weeklies have tried:
  • Running only a small teaser section of articles and requiring subscription payments for the whole things.
  • Having whole articles online for a week or less, with subscription or individual payments for older ones.
  • Allowing a limited number of article views per month to registered free users and requiring some payment for additional ones.
Lackaday, the publishers cry. We just can't figure this out. Would-be readers (a.k.a. ad-rate bases) wouldn't pay for an online subscription. They would come for free online content, but, sob, advertisers hesitate to pay us a fair rate for those readers' clicks. If we make them have a delivery subscription for the paper, we have a diminishing reader base and ad rates drop again, moan.

There is an idea out there that someone, somewhere might be trying to get something for free. The business and legal humor in that, of course, is that papers in general and wire services in particular have openly stolen from writers and photographers for over a century. They have it in the contracts for payment that they can reprint and recirculate in any form without additional compensation. They fail to see the irony in their current assertions of being underpaid.

Certainly, it's true that publishers are on a seesaw. They need more ad revenue. That requires more readers.

However, pinning their hopes on income from micro-payments is another atavism. They used to have fantasies that they could increase their profit margins with high home-delivery fees too. That didn't, won't and can't work. In fact, the more they jack up the prices, the fewer readers they keep and the less likely advertisers are willing to spend. I suspect the micro-payment models they are considering will be the same.

A few seem to be getting the hang of it, but they may be special cases. Back to the Financial Times, the blend of a lot of free, some restrictions, and subscription or payment is working. The big difference between the FT and typical city daily papers though is the nature of the content.

The FT pays for the most insightful and gutsiest columnists. It also is a must-read for those in international markets. Simply put, the FT offers content you can't get elsewhere and some of it you can make money from — it's an investment.

Contrast that to the Boston Globe or Herald's content. Here we are like LA or Chicago in deep love of sports; a few readers might pay small premiums for just the sports coverage, but not enough to make administrating a system worthwhile. Then consider the columnists, business, op-ed or elsewhere in our papers. None is an essential read, none is the best in the field, and most important, none is a must-read for investors.

On the other side of the seesaw is the weight of cultural change. We are very accustomed to free online contents. While readers increasingly hear that if newspapers drive their reporters away there simply won't be enough content to satisfy us.

That may or may not be true. This change is slow in coming and papers have been letting us acclimate to that over many years. They have closed foreign, then domestic, bureaus. They have pared original reporting throughout the papers. They have driven readers as well as reporters away, losing readership as well as ad money in the process.

The Next Bill Gates


Generations X, Y, Millennial, Z or whatever the latest names are as bad as their parents in readership. Well under half of American home get dailies. We older folk may decry how the younger ones don't read, but we were there first. We grew up with TV and have lately turned to cable-TV crap, news-like objects and internet site blurbs instead of substance. Yeah, it's true that those under 25 don't read much paper or magazine news, but we were there first.

So holding the papers' seesaw seat high in the air is the need for a cultural shift if they are to survive as we know them. Many people made the shift from LPs/tapes to CDs to buying individual tunes online. Papers fairly wet themselves anticipating such a salvation. If it happens, they 1) will have to make it happen with a system that is so easy and sensible it is painless to readers and 2) provide content that is superior to what they can find elsewhere.

Together, those factors could make that cultural shift. Newspaper publishers do not have a record of such innovation or willingness to risk. Thus, it may be new providers that figure this out and benefit.

The most simplistic and dispersed option would be that as newspapers fold into their own black holes, others will develop the useful and distinctive content. That could be the best of the bloggers and citizen journalists. More likely, it could be groups of displaced reporters and editors beating the stodgy newspapers at their own game. None of that would happen today or tomorrow, but we can be sure that either would occur much, much more quickly than it has taken newspapers to allow the Nothing to overtake them.

Another possibility is one or more strokes of brilliance. At the recent Freedom of Information forum by Northeastern in the Globe building, the exec of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had such a grand, and possible, vision. Addressing the 150 or so, who seemed to be at least half J-school students, Lucy Dalglish challenged the audience.

She said that the first one who figures out how trained journalists can make money on the internet will make tremendous amounts of money. She suggested that innovation might produce the next Bill Gates.

That was refreshing to hear it from the reporter's viewpoint. It was more so to hear it without the self-pity typical of publishers.

Rather than swim with the current and come ashore on a good spot, publishers have too long tried to blame others, villifying TV, the internet, blogs or anyone instead of taking responsibility. Perhaps most current papers won't and don't deserve to survive.

Not everyone is a sofa-riding, sound-bite hound. A terrific appetite will remain in a world with increasing amounts to know. People will follow and report news. They will disseminate it. How and who pays in what ways remains to be determined.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the whole process of news reportage and associated commentary is simply in the process of irrevocably exiting the capitalist economy. You've succinctly summarized the issue, but I think Ms. Dalglish is overly hopeful, I'm not sure there is any way for trained journos to make $ on the internet save in a non-profit format.

Just sayin'

Elias Nugator

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