Will newspapers — or rather, institutions that once were “newspapers” — ever figure out the new business model? Or will their plunge toward extinction run its course, leaving it to others to chart the new course?
As near as I can tell, the full-service, general-circulation local daily is already dead. Dead to me, anyway. It’s certainly not what I signed on to work for all those years ago. I didn’t just lose a job in 2009, I had my horse shot out from under me. It would be bad enough to see someone else doing a job I loved; it’s something else altogether to see no one doing it. And I’m talking industrywide, not just my old paper. What’s sad is to see the poor creature writhing on the ground, with no one yet having put it out of its misery.
And I lost my horse because the horse lost that which sustained it — the advertising business model. It wasn’t about a transaction between journalist and reader. That relationship was always underwritten by a third party — the advertiser. That’s what went away. Over the last few years, publishing a newspaper ceased to be like having a license to print money. And the business-side folks who came up in those fat days have not figured out how to support newsrooms and editorial page editors (and, more importantly to readers, world-class editorial cartoonists).
Ironically, the market for news and commentary is as vibrant as ever. People are hungry for what we do. Trouble is, no one has figured out how to make it pay. Least of all the people who run newspapers.
There’s a piece in the NYT today that initially seems to say that this year, finally, newspapers are going to start paying for their content. Over the past few years, one sees a story like this every few months, but nothing happens. That’s because, after working themselves into a state over how foolish they’ve been giving away their content for the past decade and a half, newspapers buck each other up enough to say, “Dammit, we’re going to start charging for it!” But then, they all watch each other to see who’s going to step out first, and when no one does, they collapse like jelly, and resume quivering and moaning over their plight until the next time they almost get up the nerve to take the plunge.
Here’s the latest such story. As you’ll see, it starts out full of bluster:
Over more than a decade, consumers became accustomed to the sweet, steady flow of free news, pictures, videos and music on the Internet. Paying was for suckers and old fogeys. Content, like wild horses, wanted to be free.
Now, however, there are growing signs that this free ride is drawing to a close.
Newspapers, including this one, are weighing whether to ask online readers to pay for at least some of what they offer…
Before collapsing, jellylike:
So will future consumers look back on 2010 as the year they finally had to reach into their own pockets?
Industry experts have their doubts, saying that pay systems might work, but in limited ways and only for some sites. Publishers who sounded early this year as though they were raring to go have not yet taken the leap, and the executives who advocate change tend to range from vague to cautious in making any predictions about fundamentally changing the finances of their battered businesses.
Although is still maintains that A Line Has Been Crossed:
But one thing clearly has shifted already, in a year rife with magazine closures and newspaper bankruptcies: conventional wisdom among media companies has swung hard from the belief that pay walls would only curb traffic and stifle ad revenue, to the view that media businesses need to try something new, because the current path appears to lead to extinction.
Like you’re not extinct already.
By the way, I’m not saying newspapers have to charge for their content, although I suspect that in some way either they, or the entities that inherit their role of keeping the republic informed, will do so. The trick is how. And if I knew the answer, I’d be making millions as a consultant. Which I’m not.
So while I may scoff at the fecklessness of my former industry, I really don’t know more than they do. But maybe, being on the outside, I’m in a better position to figure it out, even though I can’t tell yet.
One thing I will say, though: I was wrong to say that no one is doing what I used to do. Actually, I’m still doing it. At least, I’m doing the blogging part, which for the last four years I was at the paper was the one thing I was doing that was forward-looking. Other people who once made newspapers what they were are still doing it in their ways. Jeffrey Day has gone beyond me and started selling ads on his blog (although not to the extent of the Shop Tart), and Robert Ariail is out there winning major international awards for what he is still doing.
So maybe those industry-watchers who are still watching the industry are looking in the wrong place…