Friday, January 29, 2010

$ for On Line Newspapers

(News-Herald, January 28) This week, in what must be a journalistic first, the New York Times announced that it is going to follow the lead of the News-Derrick. Specifically, the NYT announced that it will start charging readers to look at its on-line version, a decision that this paper implemented last November.
Neither newspaper met much enthusiasm from its customers. The internet hasn’t been around that long, but it has some strong traditions, and one of them is that stuff is supposed to be free. People will pay to DO stuff on the internet (over 12 million people pay real money each month to play World of Warcraft), but to just look at content, folks expect free.
These are tough times for newspapers and magazines. Many print media (“old media” they’re often called) have folded, prompting hand-wringing reminiscent of the days when malls were extinguishing downtown shopping.
For newspapers to stay in business, they must make money. Journalists like to eat, too. The money has to come from somewhere. But many attitudes stand in the way of paying for an on-line newspaper.
One is quick and easy availability of content on line. Why bother with those fancy “journalists” with all their “research” and smarty-pants “facts” that have been “verified” when there’s so much more colorful coverage from a few thousand ranting bloggers?
If a guy is giving away free hamburgers on the corner, why would you go sit in a restaurant and wait to pay for steak? Certainly there are some people who would pay—they’d rather have steak and they don’t trust the corner guy or his hamburgers—but will there be enough of them to keep the restaurant in business?
Another factor is the old media’s own fault. They used to sell nice, fresh-cooked steak, but after a while they just started dragging freeze-dried processed beef slabs out of the freezer, microwaving them, and calling them steak. Many big city newspapers became fat, happy and lazy, and their steak really isn’t all that better than the corner hamburger.
Still another factor is an old one. We aren’t really used to paying for our own entertainment. Television and radio are free (ish). The old media model is a three-cornered transaction, and the audience rarely foots the bill. The tv draws a crowd, and advertisers pay to have a chance to address the assembly. Newspapers do the same. All these years we’ve been paying a token charge while advertisers buy the paper for us.
The internet upped the ante. We could suddenly catch the show without having to stick around for the pitch. Advertisers figured out they were talking to an empty room; they packed up, stopped buying ads, and now nobody is paying for the show.
Modern Americans hate paying our own bills, and in a sense the problems in media are part of a larger picture. We have someone else to pay our medical bills, someone to hire garbage collectors and policemen for us.
Why does the government insist in running up debts? In part, because we the people keep egging them on. Why do we egg them on? Because with the miracle of deficit spending, the government can take one of our dollars and buy us ten dollars worth of stuff. The pain that we are just starting to feel in Pennsylvania is the pain of government telling us, “Sorry, but we can only use your dollar to buy one dollar’s worth of stuff.”
We’re used to having invisible someones buy stuff for us, the illusion that folks are giving us things for free, from infrastructure to entertainment.
The deck is stacked against newspapers, big or small. What can they do? The biggest thing they can do is provide something unavailable anywhere else. That’s a challenge—many papers use wire service content, but that same content is available everywhere on line, for free.
What newspapers need is content that no one else has, and lots of it. This challenge requires nerve. A paper deals with people who want free promotion for their events, and it makes sense to charge for what is essentially advertising. I respectfully suggest that newspapers should not view these folks as people asking for free advertising, but people offering free local content.
However, the other thing newspapers need is reader/subscribers who can grow up and not expect someone else to buy their paper for them. Don’t ask someone to buy it for you or make it for you for free. If something is worth having, it’s worth paying for.
(Note: I do pay for my own newspaper subscription)

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