Newspapers Shifting to Paid Content Model?

From MarketWatch:

By putting a price on the Reader, The Times creates another stream of revenue, albeit a small one, to add to what it’s generating from subscriptions to its Times Select service, and sales of archived articles. Piece by piece, these services add up — but not to a lot. And they don’t answer the bigger question for the newspaper industry, how to survive the threat of the meme, “Information wants to be free on the Internet.”

Just today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Lazarus opined that, “It’s time for newspapers to stop giving away the store. We as an industry need to start charging for … use of our products online.” He said such a move needs to be industry-wide, and that, “This is approaching a life-or-death struggle for newspapers, and an antitrust exemption may be the only way that the industry can make the transition to a digital future.”

I think Lazarus is wrong (and I’m also very troubled by his call for an antitrust exemption). I can’t think of a way for newspapers to become more irrelevant and blogs to make more of an impact than the newspapers removing free access articles from their websites. Blogs have often been described as parasitic in the way that many of them rely upon newspapers for links and commentary. Fair enough. But here’s the flip side: blogs also draw more attention to an article and, thus, a newspaper’s reputation for quality journalism.

But let’s say newspapers abandon their free content. Well, online audiences, looking for free content, go elsewhere: to blogs that are conducting in-depth interviews, essays and ancillary journalism. (Without that newspaper content to draw from, blogs may resort to conducting journalism of their own. In fact, many already are.) The advertisers, seeing this bandwidth shift, turn to the blogs for their revenue. (In fact, as reported this morning, we’re beginning to see early signs of this.) The blogs, all competing for this revenue, then proceed to up their game. And it’s just like the early days of newspapers, with multiple newspapers were competing for a city’s reading attention. Except the competitive model has now shifted to a micro-level, with individuals or collectives conducting this new journalism. Perhaps former journalists, many of them downsized because of recent newspaper firings, will initiate blogs of their own and, like the two Glenns (Reynolds and Greenwald), attract mass audiences.

And let’s say these new journo-bloggers team up and generate enough revenue to hire copy editors and fact checkers. Well, then, you’ve got a virtual newsroom on your hands. And it’s all free. And with email and comments enabled, you’re talking about an instantaneous model with 24/7 reporting that newspapers can’t compete with. Why can’t they compete? Well, it’s all about access. Sure, readers can and will contact newspapers to tip reporters. But if they can’t access all the content and follow the stories, they’ll go to another free conduit in which a story is easily trackable — a particularly easy thing to do with blog categories enabled. They’ll do this because they’ll know that their voices will be heard and responded to and possibly included within the course of a story. They’ll do this because the journo-bloggers won’t view themselves as gatekeepers. The journo-bloggers will see their readers as peers with which to exchange and verify information.

Sure, there will be a period in which the experts and the cranks will have to be sorted out. And it’s very possible that cranks might prove popular. Hell, one can easily argue that they already are.

Of course, the easier thing for newspapers to do is to hire bloggers and start thinking about fusion of print and online journalism, adopting these virtual newsrooms themselves. (Even mid-sized newspapers like the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News are thinking along these lines.) But I don’t think this will be easy. Because there’s a vast difference between $745.5 million in online advertising and $13.2 billion in print advertising (both figures from Q4 2006, cited in Editor & Publisher). That’s a stunning shortfall that a collection of newspapers, each with a staff of 200 or so, can’t support.

But a collection of blogs, each with a staff of 3 or 4? I’m thinking they might get by on that amount.

Whatever happens, I don’t think either newspapers and bloggers are going away. I think we’re going to see a lot of newspapers go extinct in the next five years (with some major surprises), particularly the ones which insist upon paid content only. I also don’t think journalism is going away either. It’s just going to change. A lot.

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