Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How Much Would You Pay For Journalism?

So how much would you be prepared to pay for the content you receive in your daily newspaper? How much would your friends pay? Something? $2? $5?

Or would you pay for something else - some other kind of news content?

Waddya reckon?

This question is spurred by a so-called "grassroots" attempt to tout for newspapers in the USA.

Can there possibly be such a thing as a "grassroots coalition of newspaper editors and executives"? Sounds like a contradiction in terms to me, but that is the kind of group that is behind the USA Newspaper Project, which is running ads in American newspapers aimed at overcoming the pessimism about the medium.

It's a companion to the Australian Newspaper Works, which runs ads on the wonderfulness of newspaperse in our Australian publications, although there is nothing "grassroots" about the local iteration. Newspaper Works is funded by our main newspaper publishers and aimed at convincing advertisers that they should spend their bucks on print. So while Newspaper Works touts about all the fine journalism newspapers produce, their credibility, and so on and so forth, the Australian defenders of the medium actually spend very little time thinking about what journalism is, why it matters or how it might have to change.

Both the USA and Australian organisation make the point - which I certainly wouldn't dispute - that newspapers can be a very good thing, and that we have yet to develop alternative methods of doing what they can do at their best. They also say that newspapers are still very widely read. All of which is true, but misses the point.

It's the business model, stupid. That is, the linking of advertising and journalism in the physical product of a newspaper. That link has been broken.

I agree that there is absolutely no evidence of a declining appetite for news. The question is how is the journalism to be paid for?

At the same time, technology is making new models possible - but they have yet to develop. The kind of news reporting they support when they reach maturity will in any case look different to what we get from traditional newspapers. There will be good and bad in this, as has been discussed before on this blog.

Columbia Journalism Review has this Q&A with Randy Siegel, who is one of the "grassroots" group of editors. He makes the case for newspapers very well, but scratch the surface and you find he is not only talking about the dead tree product. He is talking about the institutional infrastructure and the set of social norms and practices that we call journalism. :

"It's the infrastructure, it's the professional training, it's the ability to condense massive amounts of information into accessible prose for the reader and the online visitor. It's the editing. I mean, this notion that you don't need editors anymore is laughable. Editors make things accessible for readers and online users, and they help educate all of us about stories and issues that we otherwise might not see. I highly doubt that your favorite blogger, for example, is in a position to fly to Iraq and cover what's going on there, or to fly to the far East and decipher our relationship with China as an economic superpower, or to go into City Hall and expose instances of municipal graft and corruption, or to get behind the scenes of a major sporting event and help people understand why a game turned out the way it did. I believe that, in journalism, you get what you pay for. And quality journalists will always have a role in our society. And as newspaper companies evolve, great journalism will now be more important than ever. Across multiple platforms.

I hope so, but (I say again) the problem is not declining appetite for news, but the fracturing of the business model. Siegel admits as much:

"I don't have it all figured out. But what we're trying to do with our effort,, is to create as much productive debate and discussion over what the right models need to be to make sure that the marvelous news and information newspapers provide is both widely distributed and also valued by the people who receive it. And one of the things that I think the newspaper industry will need to ask itself is, "Are the online aggregators paying enough for what they receive?" We've created a classic free-rider problem. You can build billion-dollar companies around the quality content that other people invest in and pay to create. The value proposition is completely out of balance.

There is an obvious point here. At what stage do we stop calling the new model a newspaper? Particularly since it is likely to be delivered online.

And of course Siegel opens up the whole "will people pay for content online" debate, which I have blogged on before here and here.

This is a key question but everyone is guessing about the answer. I am glad to say that people are beginning to turn their mind to the need for solid research on this issue of whether people will pay for journalism, and what they might be prepared to pay. I hope to have more to report on this later.

I think the American grassroots movement- and any local versions - would be better advised to focus not on the platform (newspapers) but on what they deliver - journalism, as well as being prepared to consider that the way journalism may have to change.

I am optimistic about an evolving journalism, but not about newspapers as we are used to thinking about them. Some sobering stats and facts on that business model in the USA:

In some cities, midsized metropolitan papers may not survive to year's end. The owners of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have warned that those papers could shut down if they can't find buyers soon. The Star Tribune of Minneapolis recently filed for bankruptcy. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News will soon stop home delivery four days of the week to cut operating costs. Gannett, which owns 85 daily newspapers in this country, recently said it would require most of its 31,000 employees to take a week of unpaid leave

Meanwhile, fresh intelligence reaches us all the time about redundancies at both News Limited and Fairfax. Watch Crikey, and this space.

And think about it. How much would you pay?


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