The Drumbeat Goes On

The paid content drumbeat continues with a recent article in Time by Walter Isaacson. After setting the stage by noting the strength of the newspaper content audience, more and more of whom get that content for free, he goes on to say,

This is not a business model that makes sense. Perhaps it appeared to when Web advertising was booming and every half-sentient publisher could pretend to be among the clan who “got it” by chanting the mantra that the ad-supported Web was “the future.” But when Web advertising declined in the fourth quarter of 2008, free felt like the future of journalism only in the sense that a steep cliff is the future for a herd of lemmings.

He goes on to discuss Henry Luce’s belief that free publications are “morally abhorrent.”

That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue.

Isaacson makes the usual arguments that aggregators and ISPs are siphoning away revenue on the backs of content providers, and then states his belief that in addition to subscriptions, publishers need a way to enable micropayments.

While it still seems unlikely that paid content could work for a newspaper web site, the time has come for it to be discussed in polite company. Free content has become a religion and those who think outside of the dogma are shouted down. In the early days of AIDS, a lot of governement money was spent convincing all of us that you could become infected by being near the wrong person when he sneezed. Those who suggested that certain groups were more at risk than others were shouted down.  It wasn’t until we were allowed to admit that there were high-risk groups that money and research began to be focused on where it could do the most good. Is free content journalism’s AIDS?

One problem, of course, is that even if paid content is ultimately a workable business model, those who try it first are likely to go down in flames. As long as the competition offers free content, it will be difficult to make paid content work. 

The notion that advertising supported content will give rise to a loss of “serious” journalism in favor of pop reporting is also problematic (and not obviously true).  With so many choices for information and entertainment provided by the Internet and cable TV, readers who prefer entertainment over news will simply not pay attention to the “serious” journalism paid publications can produce. These individuals cannot be force-fed their vegetables. Unfortunately, the same machine that seems to produce boring city hall story after boring county commissioners story, also uncovers the infrequent major scandal that everyone, even the entertainment lovers, want to know about. Not to mention that it is the knowledge that there is a news organization covering all of their monotonous activities that helps to keep public officials on the straight and narrow.

The question now seems to be, Can media companies put the horse back in the barn and close the door? As Isaacson says,

…we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.

The problem, of course, is that there is nothing quite so unique as your own text message. News in a free content world? Not so much.

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