If I’d Been at that Hush-Hush Newspaper Meeting…

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I’m crushed. No one invited me as an adviser/scribe to the big semi-secret newspaper industry pow-wow yesterday in Chicago. Given a minimal report from Newspaper Association of America president John Sturm of what went on, there is nothing much to analyze. But here are some thoughts I would have shared about the topics on the table.

 
* It is past time for a serious look at exactly what should continue to be free to users, what not. Paid online content and compensation from aggregators have become a bubbling cauldron of a hot topic. I’m not so sure, in the end, though, that either will prove a winning idea. 
 
* If newspapers shift to making at least some content paid, should they all do it the same way? I think so. Not the exact structure and pricing but a generally understood business model with some common specifics. Think of a sports bar. You know going in the door that there will be lots of televisions, no tablecloths, and wings and burgers available. But not all sports bars have just the same menu or charge the same prices.
 
* The hard work of defining a model that makes sense to customers is barely started. On the print side, a benefit of the industry’s financial distress may be that readers are accepting price increases. It obviously costs a good deal to report, assemble, print and deliver the news. If advertising isn’t what it once was, users get that they will need to pay a bigger share. Online ad and other revenues have not developed as hoped and won’t for some time. But what then is a fair charge to users for some portion or mix of content, a fee structure simple to explain and easy to use?
 
* Information may want to be free on the Internet, but isn’t it access to the whole of a news organization’s report that has value? I took exception in an earlier post to Google’s Marissa Mayer telling a Senate hearing that the article (not the publication or its current edition) had become “the atomic unit of consumption” for news. There is evidence for her view, and it works fine as a business model for Google. Newspaper organizations, following Mayer’s advice, could choose to reinvent themselves as providers of individual articles and multimedia variations. However (pardon another food service analogy), as a business model this would likely make them the ice cream trucks and hot dog stands of the information age.
 
* Maybe The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have figured out the next best thing to charging for the whole report. You can see the home page for free and read all of some stories and a teaser capsule for the rest, also for free. But full access to everything on the the site requires a subscription. I’m cautious about comparisons to the golden years of print. However, I’m remembering that for many years the Journal was lenient in allowing other newspapers to reprint their articles, requiring just a token payment, a “with permission” credit line and that the article be run in full. See enough of those well-done free samples, the theory seemed to be, and you might think about subscribing.
 
* Vendors are emerging quickly, aspiring to solve all or part of the paid content problem for newspapers. Attributor Inc., which tracks pick-ups of online content, and Journalism Online, the Steven Brill-Gordon Crovitz project offering several different pay options, were represented at the Chicago meeting. There won’t be enough business to support a growing roster of such companies. But there probably will be a few winners. Among other virtues, they offer an escape hatch to anti-trust concerns. If 250 papers participate in the Yahoo Partnership selling online ads on a common platform, I can’t see the problem with 250 papers syndicating online access with a single vendor.
 
The air is thick these days with apocalyptic tracts about forks-in-the-road and what the industry must do. Obviously finding a fuller array of revenue sources is urgent business for newspaper companies. I don’t know what a paid content solution is. It may be as simple and elegant as Google’s front-page search interface. But I’m pretty sure that getting there will prove to be complicated and take a good deal of time.
 
Michael Golden of The New York Times, one of the participants, says the Chicago meeting was not “secret,” just unannounced and thus not widely known until The Atlantic’s James Warren published the agenda hours before it started. I don’t begrudge private meetings on sensitive subjects, but this might be an excellent time to air out some of the options in a transparent way.

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