Newspapers need to move into the future and stop clinging to the past.
Two bloggers I respect greatly, Tim McGuire and Alan Mutter, blogged favorably this week about efforts to force Google to pay for linking to content from newspaper web sites. Because I respect both of these men and consider McGuire a friend, I read each blog again and considered what they had to say. Reluctantly, I say they both are mistaken.
I don’t claim that I or my company have the solutions for how to move forward into a prosperous future. But I am sure that the future lies in moving forward, not back. I’m glad our company is seeking solutions by looking forward. I think the business success equation that Chuck Peters has identified, Success = Attention x Trust x Convenience, is on the right track. And charging for content will harm each of the factors leading to success.
I won’t go into all the reasons that paying for content won’t work or into all the ways that newspaper companies have squandered opportunities to innovate before they became desperate. Steve Yelvington, Martin Langeveld, Jeff Jarvis, Tim Windsor and Danny Sullivan have made those points better than I could.
To those eloquent arguments, I add (or reiterate) these points:
- Newspapers never made our money by charging for our content. We barely pay production and distribution costs, if that, from our circulation revenue. The costs of gathering the content have always been paid by other revenue streams, primarily from revenue we collect from businesses who want to connect with our audience.
- Newspaper companies have done an abysmal job of developing new revenue streams online from sources such as direct transactions, lead generation, marketing services, local search, email advertising and video advertising. When and if we figure that out, we will want a large audience, not an audience diminished by misguided efforts to charge Google or consumers directly for content.
- Collusion won’t work. We are not the only sources of online information. If we try to band together to force Google or direct consumers to pay for content, we will see alternate sources proliferate faster than we can imagine. And they will have a willing force of experienced journalists to gather content for them, people who lost their jobs as we were downsizing because of our inability to generate new revenue streams.
- We have tried and tried and tried to charge for content. If it worked, we would have figured out how to do it by now.
- It’s sad to see the industry that has so vigorously defended the First Amendment and freedom of expression now talking about going to court and wasting lots of attorneys’ fees trying to attack the doctrine of fair use.
- If we are banking our future on an approach that the New York Times likens to airlines charging for luggage and to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, do you want to bet on our future. Did you even know Brittanica was online? Are you a subscriber?
I love newspapers and I think we will find our way to a prosperous future. But not by clinging to a past where we were able to charge for content and act like monopolies.
Update: I just read Ken Doctor’s proposal for what he calls “fair share,” a next phase of the “fair-use” doctrine. It’s more persuasive than McGuire or Mutter, but still represents a step back and another excuse for newspapers not to innovate, in my view.