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If Paid Web Content Is Dead, Are Newspapers?

The Internet is awash with opinions and predictions about the death of the newspaper -- one of the favorite metaphors is the leaking lifeboat, where the only serious question is how long it will continue to float.

This is to be expected. It's been generally understood for some time that the Internet has taken a wrecking ball to the newspaper's business model, but in the five months since we started thinking in terms of trillions of dollars for things like TARP and stimulus, what had been a gradual (if inevitable) process has assumed a screaming urgency.

The sharp decline in advertising budgets has hastened demise of already-teetering papers. The symptoms are everywhere: newsroom layoffs and contract buyouts; dropping home delivery or the print edition on certain days of the week, or all seven; or -- in the case of papers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tucson Citizen and the Rocky Mountain News -- a parent company placing a hard deadline to find a buyer or shut down production.

So in the recent weeks, some of the sharper minds in the industry have penned essays and columns and blogs to address print's existential crisis. The most common thread in the debate revives the question of pay vs. free content on the Internet, which is always sure to provoke a hostile response from the die-hard Net set.

For them, that issue was laid to rest in September 2007, when the New York Times killed its Times Select program, where its columns lived behind a pay firewall.

(The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times still charge for some of their content, but, the reasoning goes, they can get away with it because they write for a well-heeled business audience, and many of their readers simply turn around and bill the subscription to their employer.)

But the spare economics of advertising on the Web -- particularly in down times like we're in today -- have mounted a solid case that the current newspaper model is unsustainable.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, recently took a moment to muse publicly on the future of his own paper and the print industry. He gets at the heart of the issue with the observation that "revenues from the Web are not yet sufficient to support a great newsgathering operation."

This is key. With print advertising and circulations in steep decline, if newspapers don't figure out some way to increase their revenues online, they are doomed to either fold or decimate their newsroom staffs to a fraction of current sizes. Many have already done so.

For Keller, all options are on the table. That includes some form of paid content.

"A lot of people in the news business, myself included, don't buy as a matter of theology that information 'wants to be free,'" he wrote. "Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tests, organized and explained -- that stuff wants to be paid for. So far, it gets paid for mainly by advertisers, but a lively, deadly serious discussion continues within the Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make."

Various models have been proffered, and each has been roundly challenged by the anti-print crowd who seem to relish in beating up on the hapless newspaper executives who remain witlessly committed to their dead-tree business.

[cob:Pull_Quote]Old-line journalism heavyweights Stephen Brill and Walter Isaacson each gave the debate fresh life with recent appeals for a micropayment model. Times media columnist David Carr similarly ruminated about the notion of an iTunes-like business model for journalism, though one wonders from the wistful tone of his piece if he might be more convinced that the holes in the lifeboat are too big to patch.

The basic idea is that to access a newspaper's content on the Web, you'd have to foot the bill -- somehow. That could either be paying pennies per article, a quarter for a day pass, a dollar or two for monthly access, etc.

Oh, ho! Just you try it, you dinosaurs. The bloggers have turned out in force to point out that the micropayments idea is not a new one, and that the early years of the Web filled a sizable graveyard with failed paid-content schemes.

[cob:Special_Report]It didn't work then, the argument goes, so what makes you think it will work now? Content is supposed to be free!

"We ought to cheer the notion that publications will try to start charging for content online," wrote Valleywag's Owen Thomas. "Writers at ad-supported publications will pay the fees and deliver crisp summaries and analysis for free. Outlets which charge will end up reduced to the business of trade publications, which only manage to extract money from people who need the information for their job."

So under that logic, the Times and other papers would become trades if they started charging, and sites like those found in the Gawker family would become the mainstream media?

That seems a little far-fetched, but it's clear enough that trying to reintroduce a pay model would be swimming upstream in an online world where the culture of free is so deeply ingrained.

Page 2: Problems with micropayments