The endless chatter about saving journalism is a growing headache that won’t go away. Day after day there’s another article, talk, email thread, tweet or general missive about the impending death of an industry and by extension democracy as we know it.
However, in a rare instance where the newsroom and the boardroom actually agree, both journalists and their corporate drivers seem to have settled on the source of our continued misery.
It’s you, dear reader. It’s you.
If only you’d pay for the content we produce, all would be good. Newspapers would have their well-deserved profits, our investigations would uproot corruption and the Union would be saved because a largely 20th century historical anomaly had been saved.
Country and newspapers, we’re told, share the same fate. Although — truth be told — no one’s yet copped to who’s responsible for the incessant trivialization of our most important debates except to point fingers at the cable bloviators who tick off market researched talking points between market researched commercial breaks.
But, that’s not point. You are.
Even though you never really paid for the news back when you actually bought a physical newspaper, your Internet freeloading these past few years has brought an industry to its knees.
And where profitable newspapers equals democracy equals a country back on its feet, it’s well high time you pay.
This is what the newsroom and the boardroom now agree on.
The solution du jour is to get news readers to abandon their free access culture and instead pay for content via some clever, yet-to-be-created solution that involves micro-payments or subscriptions.
This latest round of teeth gnashing seems to have started with an Atlantic Monthly article by Michael Hirschorn about the inevitable collapse of the New York Times. What made the piece so explosive wasn’t so much the idea that the Times would cease to exist somewhere and sometime in a theoretical future.
Instead, Hirschorn predicts the Times will go down in the next few months.
The howling that followed was a world of journalists — and those who love the news — telling anyone who’d listen that we must save our beloved institutions, New York Times included. And with good reason. Layoffs and bankruptcies abound. Papers and magazines that seemed so secure just the other day will not be here tomorrow.
The race is on to come up with a sustainable business model that allows for deep news gathering and a typical, unimaginative solution runs thus: readers must pay for content.
The New York Times’ David Carr took a stab. He equated the hard and soft news we read in our dailies with the music we listen to on our iPods. He wrote about how Steve Jobs and Apple revolutionized and revitalized the music industry by creating iTunes.
In Carr’s view, iTunes stopped people from pirating music by offering an easy-to-use interface to purchase music. This software solution changed a budding “pirate” culture, got people used to paying for content (i.e., music) and pulled the record labels back from the brink of ruin.
Despite ignoring the fact the labels still struggle and coming dangerously close to saying that you, dear reader, are basically a pirate, he’d like someone with Jobs’ sense of innovation to create an iTunes for the news. It would be an application that allows news organizations to sell content in the same way that record labels currently can:
Those of us who are in the newspaper business could not be blamed for hoping that someone like [Jobs] comes along and ruins our business as well by pulling the same trick: convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspapers sites that it’s time to pay up.
Over at Vanity Fair, they even created a mock-up of how this might look. “Mock” is important here. VF seems to get that equating music and news is absurd from the get go.
It’s great that people understand the concept of digital media as manipulable content objects that can be bought, sold, mashed and mixed be it a video, an image, an article, a slide show or an audio file.
But to think that because each can be digitally transmitted as zeros and ones, and therefore economically bundled in the same way demonstrates a fundamental lack of imagination and understanding.
Just because I can buy or sell a music file for $.99 doesn’t mean that I can then sell a news story for $.05. It’s not a price point issue. We’re dealing with apples and robots here, content objects of radically different types. Or another way: not all bits are created equal.
Think music. You buy a song because you want to listen to the song. You want to have the song. And the reason you want to have the song is because there’s an emotional connectivity to it that makes you want to listen to it again and again.
It’s absurd to think that a news article — or even a brilliant essay — holds this same sort of connection. We listen to music in our showers, our cars, on our iPods and in our bars, lounges and clubs. That’s why we pay our $.99. We want it to play it over and over again until we’re sick of it.
That doesn’t happen with our news. The vast majority of people doesn’t have the need or desire to build up a news library like they do music libraries. Music forms an aesthetic palette we live and groove to. Because of this, Jimi Hendrix continues to live side by side with Radiohead and the two together are queued up on a daily basis.
Great essays and hard news articles by Hendrix’s and Radiohead’s contemporaries? Not so much outside the occasional anthology.
The $.05 that the micro-payment advocates are asking I pay to read about yesterday’s plane crash is payment for access to information I can get just about anywhere. It’s payment for something disposable which I’m sorry to tell my journalism colleagues is the type of “product” we create. That’s why we call it news and save for the hoarders among us, why newspapers are discarded almost as soon as they’re purchased.
This isn’t to belittle the hard work, dedication, expense and uncelebrated toil of news gatherers and publishers. Instead it’s to try to understand that the ambiguously defined news industry — or journalism — is trying to sell the wrong thing.
The article written about the plane crash should not be sold to dear reader, be it for $.05 or any other price point. Trying to do so is missing the forest for the trees.
Instead, publishers need to rethink what the news organization actually is. If we step back and take the time to rethink we can reformulate it as the potential services and overall intellectual capital of the organization itself, not the discrete content objects that masquerade as articles, videos and stunning photographic and illustrative visuals.
Yes, articles, images and videos can be somewhat supported by ad revenue but as been beaten to a pulp, online ad support does not sustain a full-blown news operation.
There needs to be another model and it’s not micro-payments or subscriptions save for the most up-to-date, of-the-moment, we-must-have-this-now-and-can’t-get-it-anywhere-else content.
So what are these potential “services”? I’ll soon start digging into them to offer ideas but they revolve around what the Internet actually is and not what some would like it to be. That is, it’s a mostly open system built upon ever more sophisticated application layers that allows for two way communication and conversation. It’s not a “closed” system where our every move is toll-gated by another incremental payment.
Taking openness, communication and conversation as starting points, there are software services news consumers would pay for. These include different design views and interactivity than is found on traditional news sites. For example, the New York Times created a prototype that changes the way we scan the news. I could see more immersive environments developed that subscribers have access to. Non-subscribers see traditional layouts
I can also see multiple news organizations coming together and offering “3D gateways” so that related articles lined up with one another and subscribers can see where they’re different and where they’re the same. For example, a view of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal among others that shows each organization’s stimulus package coverage lined up against one another with internal algorithms highlighting similarities and differences.
The second model I mentioned revolves around the overall intellectual capital of the news organization and the communication possible between reader, writer, producer and publisher. Numerous newspapers take readers’ questions on different subjects throughout the week but what about simple steps like live Webcasts where subscribers can ask questions, non-subscribers cannot.
Or taken more broadly, why are we not evolving customer (i.e., subscriber) outreach?
In an age and on a platform where instantaneous communication is possible, news organizations aren’t doing much about it. There’s much more interactivity that could happen between journalists and their readers that that not only adds to the bottom line but builds brand loyalty as well.
While these are initial ideas, they follow in part Chris Anderson and the price of free; Clay Shirky’s now 6-year-old understanding on the futility of micro-payments; and Fred Wilson’s thoughts about price elasticity in the digital age among others.
And if my imagination is no more creative than what I’ve criticized in current proposals, there’s always the non-profit foundation model.
That though, will be explored another day.