Thursday, February 4, 2010

Can the Web save newspapers?

This recent article in the Toronto Star suggests I've got to go a little further beyond my previous breakdown.

Comparing news to music is a woefully inadequate justification for a newspaper attempting to charge for its content. iTunes was successful because it listened to what both artists and their fans wanted - for fans to be able to buy as little as they want, not just want the producers pushed. If I like "a song or two," it used to be that I'd still be forced to buy the whole album, or just not buy anything at all. Today, the artist can get a sale because someone can go ahead and just buy a song or two.

But the issue is that a song is a single inimitable thing. If I want to listen to Stevie Wonder sing Isn't She Lovely? I can't substitute that with Frankie Lymon singing Why Do Fools Fall In Love? They are two different songs. News is a totally different thing - if a plane crashes, who owns that information? Certainly not the New York Times, or Reuters or Associated Press. News is often public. If I'm walking down the street and witness a collision between a taxi and a streetcar, is there someone standing by to charge me to watch the emergency crews respond? Life isn't owned by anyone who can charge for it.

What, exactly, does a newspaper company sell? "News"? Stevie Wonder doesn't sell "music", and you can get music anywhere. Stevie Wonder sells "Stevie Wonder's music", and there's only one place on earth where you can get Stevie Wonder's music - from Stevie Wonder. That's why he can sell.

Let's cut to the chase - no newspaper is going to make money attempting to charge people for news that is readily available everywhere else for free.

So, if a newspaper company is going to survive, what is it going to sell? It's got to sell something that no one else is selling. What is the New York Times selling?
  • something for New York Times fans to read
  • opinion about what's happening in the news
  • a target market for advertisers who wish to reach the kind of people who read the New York Times
What must, therefore, come forward, is the opinion of New York Times writers. The analysis, the insight, the punditry, those who speak to the issues with the New York Times tone and culture and voice and style. You can't get that from the Wall Street Journal or USA Today.

This opinion can be disseminated on paper but, again, why bother? Paper production carries with it too much cost to be recovered before profit kicks in. People want information when, where and how they want it, and that is increasingly via electronic and mobile media.

As such, I would suggest that the answer to the question of the Star article is "no", the web cannot save newspapers because the web is electronic media that competes squarely with print media. The segment of the population who still values sitting in the living room on a Sunday afternoon going through the Sunday paper is shrinking, and that's driving newspapers' shrinking revenues.

Nor should news outlets bother even asking the question. The paper is not to be saved -- it's the opinion of the news that's to be disseminated via media.

And, I've said it before and will say it again - news outlets must value as a strength their expertise in and obligation to provide legitimacy to news. It's one thing to get a tweet saying "Michael Jackson died," but we all waited to hear from "a real news source" that it was in fact true. News outlets have built a system of fact-checking that is second to none. We, society, need to know that what's happening is what really is happening. Anyone can start a rumour and, these days, get that rumour around the world and back in literally minutes. Today, more than ever, we need systematic rigour to confirm that some news is in fact reality, truth, or at least verifiable.

Standard Oil understood that, while the window of lamp oil demand was closing, motor oil demand was opening up a big door. They sold oil, and would sell to whomever was buying. Nearly 100 years after the breakup of Standard Oil, its two largest pieces, Exxon and Mobil, are one again, and still relevant after so many eras have come and gone.

News services have
  • the skills and infrastructure to help us determine what is news, and
  • the experience to help us interpret what to think about it.
The press is important because freedom of the press is necessary to a free society. The "press" must transform to stay relevant, and continue to contribute to, support and protect freedom.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are Bloggers making News Less relevant online? as i read various news sources and find them 'vanilla' compared to other sources.
We have seen more and more papers have staff/bloggers, but must be careful not to bad mouth anyone who may advertise.