My first impulse was to dismiss David Brauchli’s argument in favor of paywalls as a combination of crap and a sales pitch, if that’s not redundant.
But he ends with a solid idea: that perhaps there is premium content people are willing to pay for. I agree, though I’m not sure the audience will be enough to support the traditional newspaper model, but we’ll see. Until proven wrong, I welcome the chance to experiment and find out.
Unfortunately, Brauchli spends the first part of his argument beating the dead horse that any decent journalist should not spread ideas that any content should be free. The worst part of his argument:
“Most people understand that the content found in newspapers costs money to produce. The cost of producing that content is not diminished when the content is distributed online.”
That something costs money to produce is the worst possible foundation on which to assign a value to that thing. I could employ 100 really awful mechanics to build as many car-like conveyances as they possibly could produce, but whether any of those things would be worth money is not a good proposition. The average newspaper probably is in a better position, value-wise, but that doesn’t mean that everything the staff spends time to produce is worth money, or that everything that is worth money to a portion of the readership also is worth something to the rest of the readership. High school sports is one area where newspapers in recent years have decided they should devote a LOT of resources, on the entirely reasonable basis that no one else covers it. I don’t give a rat’s ass about high school sports; why should I pay one thin dime for that coverage? But I don’t have that option when I pick up the Saturday paper after Friday-night football.
As a recently laid-off journalist, I have had to make the value judgment, and I chose not to continue the daily newspaper. After almost two weeks, I really can’t say I’ve missed much. It reinforces the point made to me in 2001 when I first moved out of a daily newsroom: Once you are not directly connected to the daily operation of a newsroom, your perspective changes, and you gradually realize that what the newsroom staff is doing every day may not be as valuable as you thought. Unfortunately, that message is hard to push. I and no one I know really tried hard to push it; at most, major change was given the status of a distance goal, and we tried to push the idea of working toward a better ideal, not making huge changes in the short term.
But the biggest business problem with the newspaper model — one that would not be fixed with any changes on the content side — is it remains a one-bundle-for-all model. It’s a mass-circulation model because that’s what the big advertisers — the people who REALLY pay for the paper — historically have wanted. The content has innovated — it is more mobile than ever and better able than ever to be atomized and customized — but the business end remains a bundle. I doubt you’ll see much innovation on the business side — until the traditional side’s dollars slide far enough that the digital dimes look much more attractive than they do now.
11/27/12 UPDATE: Similar thoughts from Alan Mutter:
By their inaction, publishers have been shut out of nearly half the digital market.
Now, the same thing appears to be happening again. While the IAB reports that mobile advertising has doubled in each of the last three years, most newspapers have only rudimentary capabilities in this rapidly developing area. Publishers also are weak contenders in video, the next-biggest area of growth after mobile.
The challenges will keep coming. Not the least of them will be the innovative, target-marketing capabilities bound to be developed by Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other social media to capitalize on their expanding audiences. And who knows what lies beyond?
While publishers are preoccupied with managing the epic decline in print, they are losing sight of the future.