Should newspapers erect pay walls and charge users for content, or offer it all for free? That was the question posed in my UCLA Extension “New Media Reporting” class. My response follows.
We cannot turn back the clock. There is no way to slow the inevitable — and rapid! — erosion of the traditional newspaper industry.
Newspapers have been free since they began posting print articles online in the ‘90s. Sure, over the years they’ve all tried strategies to get readers to pay on occasion. (The Times, until 2008-ish, made readers pay for all articles more than a few weeks old, for example. And from 2003 to 2005 its online Calendar section was only accessible to print subscribers.) Even now, several newspapers including the LA Times and New York Times have modified pay walls, offering a certain amount of articles per month for free. The idea is that casual readers will continue to visit the site, boosting page views and thus advertising revenue. Dedicated readers, meanwhile, will cough up money for a digital subscription, similarly helping fill coffers. (Wondering about print? Still exists, but newspapers aren’t putting their eggs in that basket anymore.)
While the modified pay walls may boost a paper’s profit margin a tad, they’re not the final answer to the great newspaper dilemma. The dilemma being how to make money if no one will buy your product.
This quandary has perplexed others, too, Chris Anderson writes in Free: The Future of a Radical Price. No one would buy the first powdered Jell-O packets, so marketers gave away Jell-O recipe books to attract buyers. Customers didn’t take a second look at disposable shaving razor blades, so its inventor dispensed free razors. They only worked if you bought the blades, of course. These strategies succeeded, and are still in practice today in a variety of fields. Just think of your cell phone, Anderson writes: free device, expensive monthly plan.
Now consider newspapers: A buck-fifty for pages upon pages of meticulously researched, carefully written information? Yeah, right. That’s not paying for news, that’s getting it virtually free. Which for years was okay because advertising subsidized newspapers. Newspapers could lure readers with cheap prices and still have a high profit margin.
That system crumbled with the rise of the internet. As Anderson explains,
“It is a unique quality of the digital age that once something becomes software, it inevitably becomes free – in cost, certainly, and often in price.”
He calls the online world the “bits economy.” (As opposed to the “atoms economy” of physical stuff.) So advertisers – whether major corporations or the kid down the street selling puppies in the Classified section – found ways to sell their products online at little or no cost, and arguably with improved results. Bye-bye, newspapers. Pick up any recent LA Times, already slimmer than it was several years ago, and count the many spots where an LA Times logo appears instead of an advertisement.
By the same token, the cost of online publication is almost nil. Just hit a few buttons and go. Anyone can disseminate news and information with zero fixed costs, increasing competition for newspapers. And let’s not forget that the web developed in a spirit of camaraderie and sharing. Free sharing, that is. We can access nearly everything online without paying a cent.
Newspapers must accept that the revenue system has completely changed and find new ways – perhaps radical ways — to make money. (Avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” mentality about the industry will probably help.) But pay walls aren’t the answer. What is the solution? We don’t know just yet.
As Clay Shirky suggests in “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” we are experiencing a revolution as dramatic as that wrought by Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 1400s. That was a chaotic time, writes Shirky, an atmosphere where “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”
He argues that we need to experiment. A lot. Eventually, we’ll realize that some experiments are here to stay and will shape the future. Most importantly, we need to remember that it’s journalism we need to save – not newspapers. We’re spending too much time trying to fix a model that’s already broken and gasping for air. Instead of worrying about pay walls, it’s better to develop new ways for newspapers to function and thrive. With one condition: the news itself has to stay free.
Maybe journalists can take some inspiration from Janis Joplin’s song, “Me and Bobby McGee:”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
BY THE WAY: The LA Times ought to update its “history” page. The last entry is from April 28, 2006:
“In a first-of-its-kind innovation created by The Times and Paramount Pictures, the newspaper activates 4,500 “singing” newsracks throughout Los Angeles as part of a comprehensive print, online and point-of-purchase campaign supporting the May 5 opening of “Mission: Impossible III.” Equipped with electronic sound boxes, the racks play the famous “Mission: Impossible” theme song when opened.”
Kind of sad in light of newspaper’s plight. (“Let’s install newsracks that sing movie tunes – that will attract readers!!”) I know some of Times recent history hasn’t been so nice (Sam Zell! Layoffs! Buyouts! Canceled sections!), but there’s still been a lot of good, too. The Times can do so much better than singing newsracks.
Originally written for UCLA Extension “New Media Reporting” class, summer 2012.