Monday, March 28, 2011

All the News That's Fit to Pay For

I don't like to veer into media criticism at this blog; as a PR guy, it's bad for business. But I can't help but respond to snarky this Advertising Age blog post in defense of the New York Times' soon to debut paywall. The author, Simon Dumenco, argues that no one should blanche at paying for content from the New York Times because the Times is one of the few organizations left that publishes high-quality reporting and employees journalists willing to risk their lives to report important stories.

Fair enough. But as I noted recently on Twitter, this is an argument for news as philanthropy: Because the Times and similar news outlets publish something of value to society, they deserve your financial support, whether you think you derive a direct benefit or not. Or you could look at it from the NPR perspective: Because you enjoy it so much, you should feel duty-bound to pay for it. That's a reasonable assertion, but it's no defense of the Times' business model, nor is it quite the indictment of bloggers and news aggregators that Dumenco seems to think it is.

These discussions often start with a false premise: that the Internet has destroyed the mainstream media's business model by allowing people to access its content for free. But news organizations have essentially been giving away their content for decades, long before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. The money you pay for a subscription to a newspaper or magazine -- save those that deliberately eschew advertising -- doesn't come close to covering the true cost of producing that publication. Look at a magazine like Vanity Fair, which costs $15 a year for a subscription. It has some of the best magazine journalism out there, with a stable of the world's best writers and photographers. It also is chock full of ads for luxury products, which pay its way.

As Walter Lippmann wrote way back in 1922 in his seminal tome Public Opinion, news organizations do not sell news; they sell their audience to advertisers. No one is willing to pay for news, Lippmann wrote, and the same is largely true today. It is lamentable but it's not something that we can  blame on Google. Besides, no one forced the New York Times to give away its content. To its credit, the newspaper was one of the first to have a decent web site, but it started free out of the gate, if my faulty memory is correct. Same with a lot of newspapers. It's understandable; the web seemed so ephemeral back in those early days. How could you charge for something you couldn't hold in your hands?

But what these news organizations did was implicitly affirm that their product was not worth paying for. Look at the music industry. We can all agree that technology has turned it upside down, but not without one hell of a fight. Record companies took anyone to court it could get an IP address for to stop them from illegally downloading music. The result was innovations like iTunes and Amazon's MP3 music store, which satisfies consumer demand for easily downloadable music without turning them into criminals.

What the Internet has really destroyed for news organizations is their advertising model. A print publication can base its ad rates on the number of paid subscribers it can claim. But an advertiser has no guarantee that all those people will actually pay attention to their ad. On the Internet, the eyeballs mean little, it's the clicks that matter, and there is only so much you can do to game those. So by charging for its online content, news organizations are trying to get its audience to make up for the loss of ad revenues that result when you can only charge by the click.

All that said, I certainly hope that news organizations like the Times survive, because they do provide a service of great value to me as an individual and to society at large. (Not to mention that they are invaluable to my profession.) And I give the Times credit for crafting a payment system that spares casual readers -- and allows the Times' content to be accesed through aggregators and social media networks, which, after all, deliver eyeballs and clicks -- while ensuring that the people most likely to pay are probably those most willing to pay. The Times and its peers have had about 15 years to solve this problem. Here's hoping they finally get it right.


Tom Ayres said...

Well written. I was at a brief talk regarding the decline of traditional newspapers, in particular (Being I virtually live in suburban NYC) the NY Times. The talk was given by a Columbia Adjunct Professor who made some very valid points about why the Times had to do it. The most notable of which you mentioned. Ad revenue. A newspaper's ad revenue reader value was close to $944. But online, that number declines to just $46. The thought that online advertising would cover the costs of the Times' staff was just silly. Ultimately, with readers like the Ipad & Kindle, a paper news source is going to go by the wayside. So what do they do? The only thing they can do...A paywall. But how do you justify it as you propose with so much free information out there to be had? Value. Quality writing. Their own aggregators. Tech enhancements that can only be done online.

Luckily for them, there are still millions of people that will likely pay to get that info. They just have to find out how far can they push that.

Jonathan Potts said...

Thanks. Good comment.

It's been said that railroad companies failed because they thought they were in the railroad business, when in reality they were in the transportation business. Newspapers are failing because they think they are in the newspaper business, not in the journalism business.