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[από το ourblook.com] Over 25 journalists and media professionals were interviewed for this report, including John Yemma, Christian Science Monitor Editor. You can read the raw interviews by visiting the Future of Journalism section. An online book is also available.
You don’t get free gas from a gas station.
You don’t get free meals from a restaurant.
You wouldn’t walk into the Googleplex … that’s Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. … and expect a staffer to rush to the lobby with 1,000 free shares of Google stock for you.
At least we don’t think so. So why is the newspaper industry the only one in America that is expected to give its product … in its electronic version … away for free?
Wrestling with that question will determine the fate of this nation’s newspapers.
The Current State of Newspapers
In recent months … as erstwhile titans like the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have vaporized, and others like the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times teeter in bankruptcy, and still others like the Detroit News and Free Press resort to desperate new measures such as curtailing home delivery to just a few days a week … a rough consensus has emerged.
And that is … except for the «Big Four» national players, metro newspapers will not survive unless they 1) convert out of print and totally into the Internet on weekdays, saving a big print edition for the weekend, 2) confine themselves to local and regional news and, most importantly, 3) charge for it online.
Astonishingly, despite the sickening financial slide in the industry, very few charge for their web site product, the most notable exception being the Wall Street Journal, which has a hybrid system (pay for premium content). With the income from online advertising so paltry for papers as to be meaningless, the effect has been to give it away for free even as they swirl down the drain.
«Giving away information for free on the Internet while still charging 50 cents to $1 for the print version of the paper was one of the most fundamentally flawed business decisions of the past 25 years,» says Prof. Paul J. MacArthur, who teaches public relations and journalism at Utica College. «Newspapers told their paying customers that the information truly had no value. They told their paying customers that they were suckers. Why would anyone pay 50 cents for something he or she can get for free? This poorly conceived and obviously flawed strategy has helped put the newspaper industry into its current financial condition and hastened the demise of many publications.»
Prof. MacArthur is one of the more than two dozen journalists, professors and media professionals across the nation who helped us address what’s going on in newspaperdom and provided their thoughts on what might and should happen next.
Now for our suggestions, as gleaned from their input …
The Future of Newspapers
Papers are being overwhelmed by enormous newsprint, production and delivery costs … and a huge amount of staffing associated with them. All no longer needed, at least during the week. If a weekend print edition remains viable, and in most cities it does as it can still attract a lot of ads, that would continue.
The Christian Science Monitor has become the pioneer for this change. In March, it eliminated its weekday print editions but its weekender continues.
«While we won’t initially save significant money by ending our daily print publication (costs of printing, distribution, etc. are halved, but subscription revenues fall as well, making the move a wash in the first year), we are able to free most of our editors, reporters, photographers, and designers to continuously update our web site, CSMonitor.com. That should bring us more readers,» editor John Yemma told OurBlook. «Our aim is that over the next five years, our online readership will grow fivefold … from 5 million page-views at present to 25 million … and that that will provide the revenue to sustain our operations.»
Newspapers can still «deliver» their product … instead of being flipped from a speeding pickup truck at 4 a.m. on or near a driveway, its content can be delivered electronically to a customer’s computer or to a portable wireless electronic reading device such as Amazon’s Kindle.
What’s more, «content providers, once called newspapers, are experimenting with on-demand delivery particularly to mobile telephones,» says Michael Ray Smith, communications professor at Campbell University. «Telephones are computers and computers make moving information more convenient than ever. In some cases, information alerts and bursts can be downloaded from a source at work or home or even in transit and then read while on the road.»
Let’s hope that papers have a heart and offer the best severance packages and retraining possibilities they can to their blue-collar workforce, many of whom tend to be long-term, loyal employees.
But obsolescence is obsolescence.
Oh, yes, the four papers that probably can survive as they are in print … of course they’re USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
They’re in the right place … «I see New York and Washington always having newspapers because they are the seats of financial and political power,» says David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, an influential public relations firm in D.C.
The «Big Four» have a national base in their financial and/or political reporting and an affluent readership that surely is strong enough to keep them going.
Carve out a niche that makes the paper’s web site dominant, irreplaceable and one of a kind.
«I would like to offer a two-word solution to the financial woes of our ink-stained friends: ‘local news,’ » says business consultant Jonathan Stark, who has consulted for a number of U.S. papers. «Newspapers have real roots in the communities they serve. They have history, tradition and personal relationships. In some cases, they are a source of local pride. If newspapers are willing to let go of their print-based history, invest in their writers, embrace technology and dedicate themselves to being THE source for local news, they will have readers for as long as people can read.»
Who else can do it better? Local TV station news anchors and skimpy throwaway weekly papers can’t. They feed off the big local paper anyway. And let’s get real … the «start-up» lonely techie sitting in his basement with a computer poses no threat, either.
While papers have cut their editorial staffs not only to the bone but inside the bone, there’s no excuse for them not coming up with a dynamite local news web site. That’s because they can reallocate the staffers who work in national or international news or other areas of the paper to the radically new and different local effort.
«While all journalists will have to think multimedia in the future, some will naturally be more skilled at one medium than another,» says Yemma. «A photographer may be especially good at web video, for instance. An investigative reporter might excel at databases. A graphic artist may be drawn to mashups and interactive applications such as Flash. And one of the most valuable new skill sets is the hybrid journalist/developer who can build new storytelling tools on the fly. But the core function of the news operation will still be reporters who dig up information and present it to the public.»
Go for it … marshal all the resources into this one specialty. Local news, local features, local business, local sports, local commentary. It’s the chance for newspapers to make up for what they should have been doing.
«The problem for U.S. newspapers is that they failed to invest and innovate during the good times,» says Nigel Eccles, co-founder and CEO of the UK web site hubdub.com. «They remained hugely overexposed to print revenues and missed a golden opportunity over the period 2003-06 to increase their exposure to digital.»
What’s more, the staff can even be augmented … and the reach of the newspaper extended … by using «citizen journalists» for neighborhood news as the Washington Times is starting to do now. With staffers editing their efforts with hopefully professional standards, the paper can create a communications channel that is one giant step above blogging … making citizen contributions rational, useful and temperate in tone.
The citizen journalists also would probably be internet savvy, helping the traditionally stodgy papers link up with readers better in this new medium.
«There is a major stylistic difference between writing for print and web: length is the most obvious example,» says Thursday Bram, a prolific freelance writer with her own site http://www.thursdaybram.com. «Articles written for the web can be quite short … despite the fact that there is more room for a lengthy article online than in print, many readers find it harder to read long articles online.»
But however you do it, cover the community inside out and top to bottom.
«I think that despite all the problems, the major local newspaper still has a strong brand, tremendous institutional depth of knowledge and bonds with the community, and a great opportunity to remain the main hub of information for a community,» says Chris O’Brien, who’s one of the nation’s leading visionaries about the future shape of journalism. He heads the Next Newsroom Project, which works out of Duke University to plan and create the next generation of news coverage structures.
How much to charge? The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, perhaps the only sizable metro paper to charge for its web site, makes readers pay $4.95 a month. Since that’s about 16 cents a day, we’d say it’s far too low. We’d make it a nice round number, easy to remember … $20 a month. That hopefully would bring in a substantial amount of revenue. But charge what you need to charge to survive … in this sense, a newspaper will become more like a newsletter with a narrow scope but an audience willing to support it. Aren’t many newsletters profitable?
Subscription is one way, and the other way being widely discussed is micropayments. Readers would establish a credit account and be charged a token amount, perhaps a few pennies, for each article they click on. That amount would have to be tinkered with to make sure enough revenue comes in.
Papers will almost have to turn to this as a new source of money as hopes by some in the profession for a government bailout for newspapers seem neither feasible nor desirable.
It’s a terrible idea, and it is against the Constitution,» Prof. Douglas Perret Starr, a professor of agricultural journalism at Texas A&M, told us in a response typical of other experts. «If government bails out newspapers, even with a blank check, government will control not only newspapers, but also every other news outlet … radio, television, World Wide Web, and whatever else the mind of man can invent. »
Users, unfortunately, have become conditioned to free content on the Internet. Many expect it, some stridently demand it. Can that habit be broken?
«The only way you can charge online is if you have something so special that no one else can re-create it,» says Paul Swider, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter who also did a citizen journalist web site for the paper. «Don’t charge for national politics because there’s 1,000 other outlets to which the reader can turn, so you’re done. But if you have a synthesis or data or other unique quality of content that others can’t duplicate, you could charge for it and succeed.»
That means local news.
And what of the current business model of newspapers … the one that has them give content away free on the Net in hopes of luring huge numbers of readers and the attendant «page views» to lure advertisers. Well, if it works, why are so many papers failing?
Papers should do both … charge for their content and work hard to get advertising on the site. Wouldn’t a lot of advertisers prefer quality over quantity in readership … wouldn’t potential business customers be a lot more likely to be those who pay for the paper instead of those who freeload?
Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Democrat-Gazette, noted in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 that the U.S. newspaper industry collectively spends about $7 billion a year to gather news. «By offering this news for free and selling it to aggregators like Google, Yahoo and MSN for a small fraction of what it costs to create it, newspaper readership and circulation have declined,» he wrote. «Why would readers buy a newspaper when they can get the same information online for free?»
He added this point: ads have much more impact in print than on a computer screen. «While consumers often find pop-up ads a distraction (on a web site) and banner ads as more clutter, readers often seek out the advertising in newspapers.» This makes it all the more essential that papers charge for online.
Hussman’s paper, incidentally, while not exactly flourishing, has suffered much less advertising and circulation declines than most other of his peers. Since Hussman whipped the much larger Gannett in Little Rock’s famed newspaper war of the early ’90s, we’d say he knows how to survive in this business.
Which brings us back to our original question: why do people expect newspaper web sites to be free?
And there’s no good answer. Some experts use airy, meaningless phrases like «because that’s the internet culture» as if this notion just floated down from heaven somehow. However, there are plenty things on the web that people find valuable enough to pay for.
In fact, that’s how Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who benefits immensely from basically free news, views it. In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, he actually said, «the culture of the internet is that information wants to be free.» And he might be accurate about internet culture. However, the «free» model has obviously not worked for the American newspaper model.
Another time, talking to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, he seemed to summarily dismiss Google’s role in «hijacking journalism» and advised, “The best way to get out of this is to invent a new product. That’s the way Google thinks. Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”
Of course, there’s one dreary old product Google doesn’t mind having and that’s a bunch of crisp $1, $5, $10, $20 and you name it bills.
Quality news doesn’t want to be free any more than gasoline wants to be free or food wants to be free. When Mr. Schmidt stands in the lobby of the Googleplex and hands out free shares of his company stock, then maybe we can believe the «free» rationale. Until then, newspapers need to find a model that brings in revenue so that they don’t go out of business. Simple as that.
** Gerry Storch is editor/administrator of http://www.ourblook.com, a political discussion/media analysis site that bridges the gap between a blog and a book. He has been a feature writer with the Detroit News and Miami Herald, Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader with the News, and sports editor and business editor for Gannett News Service. He holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.