Will “newspapers” ever figure out the new model?

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…

25 thoughts on “Will “newspapers” ever figure out the new model?

  1. Ken Hawkins

    In June Dan Conover down here in Charleston wrote a piece called “The newspaper suicide pact.”


    For those of you not familiar with Dan, he’s also a newspaper ex-pat and someone who has done more than his fair share of musing of how newspapers can sustain themselves.

    I don’t always agree with him, but we do agree that pay walls are a horrible idea.

    Not only do I believe that demand for community/national/political news is highly elastic when it comes to buying and individual but that the market has changed online – no one wants to be locked into a single publication for all their news. It’s different in the “real” world where there’s a finite number of papers at the rack or that deliver, but not so online.

    There’s also the argument that “free” is just another four letter word. — That’s a line that’s used less but irks me all the same.

    Here’s my own musing about that http://charleston.thedigitel.com/digitel-feature/economics-free-monetary-charge-and-why-newspapers–7642-1207

    To me it seems the answer to woes at newspapers must tie to the problem. And that’s how advertising became less valuable as communication became more efficient and less expensive.

    So I’d argue one has to find a way to make newspapers more efficient.

  2. Anne

    Does anyone remember years ago, when Napster was free? Now we pay for downloads. (Well, those of us who get music legally do. There have always been those who shared music illegally. Remember taping an album?) Maybe traditional news media needs their very own Metallica.


    There is a way – it just isn’t clear yet. (Well, maybe it is to someone, but not me.)

  3. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Anne, if it were clear to ANYONE, that Anyone would be getting very rich right now, as newspaper companies would pay top dollar to any consultant peddling that magic elixir… assuming that they were smart enough to recognize it, which remains to be seen.

  4. Ken Hawkins

    Anne, there’s a key difference between music consumption and news.

    With music (and books, for that matter) the value persists over time. My friends can talk about how good it is, reviews can recommend, and so on.

    But with news there’s no time for that, by the time something gets recommended the value of the piece has greatly diminished in most cases. (Digg.com is full of exceptions.)

    So without seeing it for myself it’s hard to judge its worth and if I should spend money.

    The other option would be not to sell a paper on individual articles but more of a traditional subscription, but this method too is not without problems. In a given day I might read articles from a dozen publications, perhaps as many as 50 in a month. It seem hard to fathom I would have subscriptions to all of those.

    Past proposed work arounds were for folks to get the first few reads on a publication free. Then the question is how to track.

    Another idea was to sell credit packages that would be used and debited from your account as you visited various publications. A nickel on the times, a nickel at The State and so on.

    That last one seems more plausible, but then the reader has to debate if they want to spend 5 cents to read something they don’t know the value of. For the sake of argument, I’ll say publications have some devised an elegant recommendation engine to mitigate that risk. The question the rests on bringing various publications on board one micro-transaction system.

    To me, that seems to have the most likelihood of being successful. But, again, making people login before they can view content can bring upwards of an 80% drop in page views, and publishers are very fearful of that.

    And, with that, I’ll stop hijacking the comment section.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    My own suggestion to our publisher was to charge $2.99 a month to subscribe to the online edition. The catch was that subscribers could modify their content stream to suit themselves — no ads, all-sports, whatever you want as a subscriber. Non-payers got the full, bloated package complete with pop-up ads. And no charging for “old” news. Being able to fine-tune your own package was the value-added, and less than 10 cents a day was very cheap.
    If you get a thousand subscribers, you’ve paid for a reporter.
    His response — good idea, but all online newspapers would have to collude to make it a reality.
    I think he’s wrong, but his concern raises an interesting point. Would news organizations have to work together to make it happen, and would that constitute anti-trust issues? Do we need a new Newspaper Preservation Act?

  6. Doug Ross


    I think you have the solution nailed. It will involve newspapers banding together to create a micro-payment system that is simple to understand, easy to administer, and makes the user believe he is getting value for his money.

    Some entity like Google or Amazon has the technical capability to implement this but I think the resistance would come from the news organizations that would have to change their business models drastically — to be about CONTENT and not ADS. Thousands of jobs would be lost quickly (versus the death by a thousand cuts that happen now). Imagine a newspaper that didn’t have to worry about subscriptions, selling ads, delivering hardcopy papers, etc. It could actually focus on delivering news.

    The best thing The State could do on January 1 would be to say “We aren’t printing papers any more starting on 1/1/2011.” That’s the kind of bold move it will take.

    Or we could have the government take over the newspapers and see how that works out. I hear that the newspaper names “Pravda” and “Izvestia” are both available.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    Salon.com has a premium service–I paid for it, w/o the ads, etc. I wonder how it’s doing?

    and Ken — we welcome comment hijackers like you!

  8. Anne

    Sorry Ken, I wasn’t clear. I meant “Metallica = catalyst for change” rather than “Metallica = catalyst for the exact same change.” I’m no journalist, but I can’t imagine the solution is that obvious because news is not a product like music. The way it’s disseminated is a product and I guess someone needs to figure out how to disseminate it in a way that people will pay for. I sure don’t know how that is. I do know that we need official news sources because, much as I enjoy Twitter, it’s like Wikipedia in that users edit it and you can’t always believe what you read.

    My sis and I had an interesting chat about the fact that Iran has banned foreign media, so many of the published photos came from people who happened to be there. All AP’s photos were labeled “Editor’s note: As a result of an official Iranian government ban on foreign media covering some events in Iran, the AP is prevented from independent access to this event.”

    I was joking – swear! – and said it was probably propaganda spread by the media to avoid paying for journalists to go there.

    Anyhow, just wanted to explain my self a bit. I am way out of my league in this conversation, because my writing is a wee bit more trite. I do subscribe to a newspaper, though. We have the NYT delivered to our home. If I couldn’t get it delivered, I would most definitely pay something to have access to it online, even if other papers were free.


  9. Juan Caruso

    The current cost (free) is commensurate with the pedestrian quality of most reporting delivered these days.

    Want consumers to pay for news? Deliver reliable quality.

    How? As made clear previously, by adopting credentialling and disclosure standards:

    1) Journalists must either possess expertise in matters upon which they report facts to readers, or disclose their related inexpertise.

    2) Also missing in today’s quality calculus is reporting of contrary assessments by dissenting experts.

    3) Keep your opinions to yourself unless you are writing an opinion piece and have both an education and related experience that sets you apart from educated, experienced readers.

    Until then, friends, better stick to advertising to fund your pulp.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    Ken, May I introduce you to a JOURNALIST, Anne Wolfe Postic, a/k/a The Shop Tart, who sells herself short. She writes almost daily, reports it all herself, does her pwn photos and makes it pay.


    She thought this up herself, made it happen, and made it must-read for so many intelligent, well-educated and well-funded women and men in our fair city.

    She has a unique voice and promotes local retailers and restaurants in a place that, unlike Charleston, doesn’t do that much.A civic treasure she is, and hardly out of her league.

  11. Anne

    Aw, thanks, Kathryn. You give me way too much credit.

    But if anyone wants to know where to go for dinner or where to get the abso-freaking-lutely best self-tanner in town – if not the world – call me!

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    She does a better job than The State’s feature writers these days–covers shop openings, sales, restaurant news, the social scene–charity benefits and the like, wry family commentary, great recipes….and it’s local—no nifty articles about home decor shops in St. Louis or gardening in Philadelphia. Nothing is cropped mid-thought. Between her and Brad,(and Ariail’s blog) I really don’t need a lot from The State any more….

  13. Ken Hawkins

    Kathryn, sorry, forgot to check back on this thread.

    I’ve encountered The Shop Tart before but hadn’t really paid much attention to it as it’s not about my area. (Though I think I follow her on Flickr ..)

    At any rate, it seems there are two interesting things going on.

    First: Newspapers are looking (and hopefully will) find a way to continue as some sort of evolved entity, I’d like to think that it would be something that excels at covering the hard stuff: crime, hard biz news, and even a bit of investigative (it also occurs to me that this is the easiest to charge for.)

    [I’ll toss sports in as an aside: Suspect we may see these spun off sooner than the some other parts of the paper as they may be the easiest to charge for and already function as subsets inside the paper.]

    Second: Then there’s the non-hard news: political meetings, biz openings, restaurants, etc. All those things can be done by non-institutions and folks that don’t have j-school degrees. And, as you point out, they already are being done. Newspapers have no competitive edge here.

    I suppose my point isn’t a to-do list of what should be done, but that there are areas where a newspaper has a competitive edge and areas where they don’t. And like all other businesses, they need to get out of markets where they Suck.

    I’ll also toss in the idea that we need to stop treating the idea of the paper as a cheap rag. It’s a premium product and should be produced and sold as such.

    But if any newspaper was going to listen to me, they would have already. Mainly I find talking about this stuff does little more than satiate a niche group’s need for a mental debate about their old industry.

    I just don’t know if newspapers have the ability to make a radical shift at this point (or if they ever did). Investor confidence seems to be eroding quickly and so how will you convince them to go along with a radical remaking of your core product?

    And then there’s the matter of how an iTunes-type store for news may do very good things for journalism, but it would be death to a large part of the AP’s current business and would make countless jobs redundant. Arguably things that would be very good for the industry five years out, but hard to push through decision makers that aren’t sold on the need for such drastic change.

  14. Burl Burlingame

    Changes in thinking need to occur within the marketing heads inside newspapers. Even newspapers that are “failing” reach tens of thousands of readers every day. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a mass-market medium always trying to increase circulation but instead as a narrow-caster catering to the needs of those we already have. It needs to be an “exclusive” product.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    Not sure why you throw political meetings into the soft news basket. A knowledgeable reporter with a discriminating eye and no, or little, financial stake would seem to be especially important. Hard biz news is what? Economic forecasts that I just learned on This American Life are not only worthless, but known to be such by those who insist on them.

    and sports stays in the mix (I know you waffled on that one) why? Because guys are interested in it?

    I like The Shop Tart b/c unlike other reporters, she does not puff. If she likes it she says so, and if she doesn’t, she doesn’t write about it–so while I won’t know that a certain restaurant sucks, I at least know if one she writes about is good. I can’t wear almost any of the clothes she writes about, nor afford the salon services she indulges in, ut the restaurant and other local shopping information is at least as valuable to me as any sports news.

    As I wrote on a later post of Brad’s, I live near the University and football traffic is a huge concern–as is potential damage to my car from post-game partying, but otherwise, I could not care less about stupid boys’ games. Go get a concussion and lifelong brain damage, as Malcolm Gladwell writes.

  16. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, I was a little confused by Ken’s categorizations, too. Seems to me there’s nothing “harder” than a political meeting. Nor is there anything that demands more judgment or understanding to produce an evenhanded, fair report. In other words, it’s about the last thing I’d want to see handled by an amateur. Most journalistic professionals don’t have enough experience and understanding to cover politics adequately, according to my standards (even though probably all of them THINK they can). You really need to know your stuff to cover something where everyone you deal with is trying to spin you. Too often, what you get — and this from professionals — is mere regurgitation of what one source said, set against an equal and opposite reaction from another source. In fact, this laziness on the part of reporters is a huge factor in having trained Americans to think of politics in binary terms — either-or, Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative, black-white, etc. — which is why so few Americans really understand what’s going on in politics. And since journalists have trained amateurs to think this way, with an amateur you’ll get the usual partisan stuff, only rougher — either more blatantly partisan (without the veneer of “evenhandedness” that journalists lay on) or less accurate.

    Oh, and David — Kathryn and I are both reacting against sports being exaggerated into a Much Bigger Deal than it actually is.
    By the way, Kathryn, I was a wrestler in school, so I’ve had a lifetime of spinal damage rather than the brain kind…

  17. Kathryn Fenner

    I have marching band knee and lifelong lip balm addiction from playing trumpet–even got a letter for it (playing in the pep band)…I also cannot stand still when a marching band goes by—gotta left right left!

  18. Kathryn Fenner

    and any sport that allows its players to undergo the kind of medical horrors outlined in Gladwell’s article is totally uncivilized–and to say that the children who start playing it have any more choice than a pit bull….but again, God forbid we preclude the huge money-machine, tailgating monster from having its way. It’s also amazing that more drunk drivers aren’t in wrecks after what goes on at Williams Brice and environs….

    My nephews play, over my objections, but they have pretty much switched to baseball, which has fewer automatic injury issues, but still…

  19. Doug Ross

    There’s nothing wrong with sports. The problem is with the money associated with sports.

    You think USC really cares if the football team is 5-7 as long as Williams-Brice is full every weekend and all the parking spots are sold for outrageous amounts? That’s why they let in marginal (at best) “student” athletes to use, abuse, and cast aside. A few escape to the pros but the majority of them use up their eligibility without ever being on track to graduate – or are guided into “rocks for jocks” classes to keep them on the field.

    Sports teach character, discipline, and the concept of competition – all good traits to be productive in society. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the sports diluted by the “let’s all play, let’s all get a trophy” attitude that started about twenty years ago. Telling little Johnny he’s doing GREAT! when he kicks the soccer ball in the wrong goal is one of the symptoms.

  20. Brad Warthen

    Indeed, as Burl says, politics — as covered by the MSM, and therefore as perceived by Americans — is sports. The media cover politics in exactly the same way — only two teams, and one has to win and the other has to lose, and everything is about the current election (game) or the last one or the next one because they lack the vocabulary to cover anything else.

    And since that’s all the electorate sees, that is what is perceived, and that is what politics becomes.

    I explore this further in a new post here

  21. Ken Hawkins

    Just to clarify my earlier categories. They were off the cuff, but yes, a very big difference from reporting back on political meetings and following up with analysis.

    Something to ponder: Does it make economic sense to send reporters from five media outlets to one city hall meeting. What about a crime? Accident?

    I think other failing businesses would find a way to work together to cut costs.

    Then again, greenville, columbia and charleston are all sharing biz reporting now …

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