The newspaper industry promises it will begin charging for news online. But it shares a similar problem with the music industry. It has allowed consumers of news for well more than a decade to treat news as a free good.
Further, during that decade, the newspaper industry has purposely deteriorated its product in a vain attempt to chase the last dram of declining advertising revenue. To do this, it has cut costs in the two principal areas it can — paper and people. Physically, newspapers have shrunk in height, width and number of pages, reducing the amount of newsprint required. In 1990 America’s daily newspapers had 56,900 staffers; 5,900 journalists lost their jobs in 2008; and thousands more have been whacked this year. And it’s the expensive high end of the experience spectrum that the industry has callously discarded. So profit levels remained tolerable to shareholders, but only because of decreased costs — not increased revenue.
And the titans of the industry now say they’re going to charge for a product produced by fewer people with less experience that’s led to far more editing errors and one-source stories that reveal much in their shallowness about the quality of the product being sold? Good luck with leading the paid content charge, Rupert.
Now, the claim that the news product has been disfigured by fiscal folly is admittedly a swipe with a broad brush. But there was a time when readers of many, if not most, newspapers in the United States could point to more than one story in their local paper that exhibited the characteristics of first-rate reporting and writing. These would be stories that provided context, background and meaning beyond the mere reporting of “what happened.” These would be stories fleshed out with color, tone and detail. These would be stories grounded in substance wrought by vigorous reporting, rather than inexpertly daubed with cloying style. These would be stories that a reader would remember — stories by an experienced, competent journalist whose byline a reader would remember and look for in the future.
That’s not true any more. And readers know it. They know when they’re being poorly served. They know when the product loses value yet the newsstand and subscription prices rise. And the prime demographic the industry wishes to reach (because they’ve got discretionary income to spend) has come to know another truth promulgated foolishly by the industry: News is free. Newspapers may place their product behind a pay wall — but that’s no guarantee that readers who have come of advertiser-sought age during the Era of All Media Are Free will actually buy the product.
I don’t know how this seller-vs.-buyer drama is going to play out, but the first act will come soon. I expect larger metro papers, now free online, to institute partial pay walls within a year. Perhaps a consortium of papers, as envisioned by Steven Brill’s Journalism Online, will institute some sort of online subscription or pay-per-story scheme (which might qualify as price-fixing?). I’d bet newspapers have already done readership surveys asking would you pay and how much would you pay. (Wouldn’t you love to see those survey results?) Heck, is this even a well-thought-out business model? Or is it a new biz model, same as the old biz model?
The industry will spend huge sums on Web platforms and promotion. It will spend oodles of dough on technologically particularizing its pay walls. It will spend rafts of money on promoting the advantages of its new superb online news subscription systems.
But how much will it spend on improving its product?
The last decade suggests an answer: Nada.
Good luck with this Brave New Pay Wall World, Rupert.