I hope the newspaper tycoons meeting secretly in Chicago this week come up with a clap-your-hands plan.
Because clapping our hands to save the newspaper industry, like we saved Tinkerbell at the movies when we were children, has more chance of succeeding than the paid-content-cartel approach that newspaper executives are dreaming and talking about but being careful not to conspire about.
I know nothing firsthand about this week’s secret meeting in Chicago, organized by the Newspaper Association of America, but I refer you to reports and analysis by Slate, Nieman Lab, Scott Rosenberg and The Atlantic. I’m sure I know some of the executives huddled to discuss how to charge for content (without discussing so specifically that they would be colluding illegally). I have done business with many of their companies and honor their organizations’ contributions to journalism. I wish them and their companies well. And I am thoroughly, profoundly disappointed that they are wasting so much attention and energy on an approach that is doomed to failure.
This meeting is an embarrassment. Our industry fights for openness and accountability in government and we are trying to find a path for success in a digital marketplace where transparency is increasingly important. Can these people not see how foolish and hypocritical it looks to think they can huddle behind closed doors and solve our problems?
Knowing that I will be repeating myself, I offer seven reasons that newspaper companies need to stop looking to the past (paid content) to find solutions for the future:
- Even if the Justice Department were to look the other way, newspaper collusion still wouldn’t work. The quality of newspaper sites’ content has declined as they have cut their news staffs. In the meantime, free community news sites have sprung up like wildflowers: the St. Louis Beacon, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, West Seattle Blog, Eastern Iowa News, The Batavian and Huffington Post Chicago and national sites such as Huffington Post, ProPublica and Politico, many of them subsidized by the buyouts that newspapers have given to experienced journalists. Watch their traffic and advertising soar if their arrogant competition erects paid moats around their news sites. (One start-up local site, INDenver Times, did try to support itself with subscriptions and reached 6 percent of its goal.)
- Traffic and advertising revenue will fall faster than subscription revenue will rise if news sites start charging for their content. Martin Langeveld has already done the math on that.
- Micropayments won’t work either. My Gazette colleague Jamie Kelly has done the math on what newspaper stories are worth in print.
- Quoting myself here (from remarks at a panel discussion at Iowa State last month): “Newspaper circulation peaked in 1993, the year Larry Page and Sergey Brin turned 20 and five years before they founded Google. So let’s not blame digital competition for upheaval in the newspaper business. We were killing each other off and failing to innovate long before competitors started figuring out the secrets of success in the digital marketplace.”
- Charging for online content won’t protect the print edition much either. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which took that approach, has been cutting its staff just like the rest of us. Mark Potts wrote on his blog about a debate with Publisher Walter E. Hussman on that approach.
- Paid content has been tried before. One of the biggest myths of the newspaper business today was that we foolishly gave our content away early in the age of the Internet. Many newspapers were either slow to go online because of fear of cannibalization or erected pay walls. We finally got aggressive and free online because holding back our content and charging for it weren’t working.
- The energy, money and time we waste pursuing solutions that can’t work keep us from spending energy, money and time pursuing forward-looking solutions. Maybe my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection isn’t the solution, but it has lots of ideas we should try. Or try Steve Outing’s membership approach. Pursue Dan Conover’s vision for 2020 media. Refine the non-profit approach that several are trying. Or come up with your own plan. But base it in something more solid than resentment, wishful thinking and nostalgia.
For more of my thoughts on this, read Take 2 on newspaper executives’ secret meeting.
For more reading on paid content, I recommend:
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- Guide to local watchdog news sites (cyberjournalist.net)
- Non-For-Profit Isn’t A Business Model For Newspapers (paidcontent.org)