August 21, 2009

Debate Over Journalism’s Financial Future Offers Some Hope by Bill Mitchell

As another week of furious debate draws to a close without any clear path to journalism’s financial future, I find myself feeling strangely optimistic.

Though we’re still way short on answers, the questions — and quality of debate and experimentation — are getting better and better.

Take the latest hotbed of argument — Paul Farhi’s bold piece in AJR, “Build That Pay Wall High,” urging news organizations to impose steep fees or to launch a fast march away from the Web and back to print. …

At the recent AEJMC convention, the gathering of journalism professors, I had a long chat with Stephen Lacy, the media economist who teaches at Michigan State University. Among his most interesting points: as useful as economic theory can be in describing a media landscape, it’s pretty useless when it comes to attaching prices to products. Setting prices, he argued, requires experimenting with the simple and complex question of how much people will be willing to pay for products and services they’ll find more or less valuable.

All you have to do is scroll Romenesko, search the future of journalism in Bing or, in my case, consider the people I wrote about this week on NewsPay, to get a sense of the experimentation under way. Is it as deliberate or as efficient as we might like it to be? Of course not.

Amid news of more staff cuts, bankruptcy proceedings and advertising revenue sinking to levels of 40+ years ago were reports of News Corp pushing to create an online news consortium, Advance and Microsoft collaborating on an ad venture, MSNBC’s acquiring, several dozen papers creating a sports content sharing plan, a new investigative reporting site showing up in south Florida, and NPR introducing a striking new iPhone app for text and audio. And that’s just a selection of this week’s news about media transformation.

My point is not that each of these initiatives will succeed, or even that, collectively, they suggest survival of journalism as we know it. I’m guessing that a few of these experiments will gain traction, though, and that new models for news will emerge. > Read more Tall Pay Walls May Limit Community Access to Information by Rick Edmonds

A number of commentators, led by blogger Alan Mutter, have noted lately that the paid online content bandwagon seems to be stalling into a lot of talk and not much action. But what if newspapers rally and act in unison to make much of what they offer online available only to those who pay?

Suppose, too, that they bring off the unlikely feat of keeping the best of their work from free-to-the-user competitors, aggregators, searches and links?

That works fine for the top tiers of specialized business information offered by The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. But it doesn’t seem to me to fit at all with the traditional public purpose of the press in helping provide for “the information needs of communities in a democracy,” as the title of a current Knight Foundation study commission puts it.

In the good-old-days business model, newspapers reached a high percentage of households in their communities. (In the fragmented here and now, they still do that better than most competitors). Papers were not free, but they were cheap — a dime or a quarter. Summaries distributed by the wires, used for rip-and-read radio newscasts, amplified the reach of the newspaper’s journalism.

With the rising costs of production and distribution and declining advertiser interest, it is in the cards that print papers will cost more, as has been the trend of recent years. Circulation has fallen and papers are edging toward serving a more elite, educated audience, as does The New York Times.

As the publishers love to say, however, total reach — including those reading free news Web site — may be higher than ever.

Charging for online content would depress those numbers, and the higher the wall the greater that effect. Bad for business and bad for the paper’s contribution to informed democracy, as well.
> Read more

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Julie Moos ( has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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