Reinventing the Newsroom

Subscriptions: I’m Optimistic (for a Depressing Reason)

Posted in Associated Press, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content by reinventingthenewsroom on August 10, 2009

Another week, and more fitful signs of hope among papers planning to charge for access to news.

Again, it’s not the plans to charge that I regard as a hopeful sign — I still fear too many papers are deluding themselves that their online content and presentation are good enough and different enough to attract paying customers. For example, I recently picked up a Boston Globe while waiting for the shuttle at Logan and was sad to see what this once-great paper had become. I really doubt the online version of the Globe I read could survive as a subscription product.

So what gave me hope? It’s that papers seem to be forgoing flags-and-trumpets talk about their importance to democracy, what hard work journalism is, or what customers should do. I’m sympathetic to all three points, but none of them has anything to do with the task at hand.

As a co-founder of Journalism Online, you’d expect Steven Brill to be reassuring about paid content. But in Matthew Flamm’s Crain’s New York Business article, Brill notes that the paid model “puts the burden back on the editors to invest in and create content that’s really distinctive and not simply fungible.” That’s correct, and in line with Rupert Murdoch saying that his papers will stave off free competitors by “making our content better and differentiated from other people.” I’m not convinced The Sun can be a for-pay success story like The Wall Street Journal Online, just as I doubt the Globe could charge where I think the New York Times could. But at least the media barons no longer seem to think readers will simply get out their credit cards in obedience to some sort of moral imperative.

My EidosMedia colleague Steve Ball and I had a lively, friendly argument about subscriptions last week. Steve is more pessimistic than I am about papers being able to move from a free model to a for-pay model: I think the New York Times could definitely implement a pay wall (preferably of the “leaky” type — so dubbed by David Carr — that’s been so successful for WSJ.com) and believe the Washington Post could do it if they keep building on their general surefootedness (Hillary Clinton swipes aside) with online features, style and voice. Steve doesn’t. Moreover, he thinks the success of WSJ.com and the Financial Times reflect that their information can be used to make money — conventional wisdom I think is more convenient for other papers than it is true. (I think those success stories reflect a combination of quality journalism and the simple, self-reinforcing psychological message that “I pay for it, so it has value — and since it has value, I pay for it.”)

But what really struck me about our debate was that there is a considerable gap between the current media world and the one that will have to emerge for newspapers to succeed in charging for online content. To charge, newspapers will have to go truly digital-first, reorganizing their staffs around the Web, revamping their Web sites to create new context for different kinds of readers, and of course creating compelling, unique Web content. Today that’s still an afterthought for too many papers.

And even then, Steve wanted to know what would stop readers from heading elsewhere for content that might not be as good, but would be good enough — particularly if you weren’t looking for particularly high-quality content in the first place. My answer was that there’d be a lot less good-enough content: Papers would become aggregators instead of paying a lot of money for commoditized national and international content from the repurposing arm of the AP, and a lot of also-ran papers would no longer exist. The glut of “good enough” content — a legacy of the days in which geographic isolation insulated papers from competition — would be gone, and readers would be more willing to pay (sometimes grudgingly) for what remained.

Our disagreements about financial news aside, Steve was primarily talking about the world that is — and opining correctly that for most papers, subscriptions wouldn’t work. I was primarily talking about the world that could be — and opining hopefully that for some papers, subscriptions will work.

But that left me face to face with an unhappy truth: My world that could be includes a lot fewer papers, and a lot fewer journalists. It means the pitiless downsizing of the industry has only begun. It means a lot more journalists trying out second careers, as I and thousands of my peers have done.

I didn’t shrink from the thought — neither sorrow nor defiance will prevent the cycle of hopefully creative destruction from continuing — but all of a sudden my optimism seemed like the slightest hint of silver in an awfully dark cloud.

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