Monday, September 21, 2009

update on the decline of print media

Over the last few months, I've largely kept my "print-media-isn't-viable" soapbox stowed out of public view. A new post by Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy got me lugging it back out.

Kennedy, a long-time subscriber to the Boston Globe (which he calls--and I agree with him--"the most important news organization in Greater Boston"), has decided to cancel his Monday through Saturday subscription. He writes:

Why did we do this? It’s been inevitable since early this summer, when the Globe made a couple of important changes in its distribution model. First, it unveiled GlobeReader, an electronic paper that’s a faster and easier read than the Web edition. Second, it raised the price of its print edition.

Seven-day home delivery of the Globe now costs $46.56 a month in Media Nation. With advertising in what may be a permanent decline, readers are going to have to pick up more of the cost, so I certainly don’t fault the Globe for charging more. But our family is not immune from economic pressures. For us, it makes sense to go with paper on Sundays and use GlobeReader the rest of the week.

Kennedy, like all of us who consider a thriving, free press to be the backbone of a thriving, free society, explains that he has struggled with his family's changing relationship to his local newspaper. He justifies the change with his subscription to the Globe Reader (it costs $14.95 a month it comes with subscription to the Globe--thanks for the correction, Dan) and explains that he would not have canceled his subscription if the only alternative were reading the news online, because

[l]ike virtually all newspapers, the Globe is struggling with its decision some dozen year ago to offer its content online for free. At one time, newspaper executives assumed that advertising revenues would eventually justify that decision. It didn’t happen — it may never happen — and the way out of that morass is unclear. We were not about to contribute to that pain.

Though Kennedy makes no judgment here about the net value of making news content available for free online, there are those who do, who have, and who will. I am one of those people. I believe that the decision to make news content available for free online is perhaps the single most crucial factor leading to the social revolution.

Imagine an alternate scenario: back in the 1990s, at the very beginning of the internet age, news executives decide to charge--and even a micropayment will do, for this scenario--for access to online content. Communication, creation, and circulation of individual ideas and creative works are still cheap or free, as they are today, but accessing the news will cost you. In this scenario, the power of the hyperlink gets diluted to practically zero, at least for those who choose not to pay for their news. Blogging loses its widespread appeal. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, if they even come into being, get relegated to the realm of the banal: tweets about what I had for breakfast, status updates spreading my results on a series of meaningless quizzes, achievements in Mafia Wars and Scrabulous.

It's tough to imagine this alternate universe because putting a price, even a tiny one, on access to content seems nearly unthinkable to us now. Indeed, perhaps the most significant fallout from media executives' decision not to charge for content is the general public stance exemplified by Jon Stewart's comment to Walter Isaacson, a journalist and policy guy who believes newspapers should start charging for access to online content: "Sir," Stewart said in disbelief, "the internet is free."

Since the advent of mass literacy, has there ever been a time when so many people believed so strongly that information should be free and accessible to all?

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rozzie02131 said...

Nobody likes to pay for something that "should" be free. And yet, if they want it enough, they will.

Cable TV is a prime example. Nobody was going to pay for TV when it started out. Why would you do that when you get 4 or 5 perfectly good channels for free? Now, everyone spends up to $100 or more a month, and can hardly imagine a life without ESPN, or Fox News, or whatever.

Local news is one of those commodities that people demand in quantity and hope to get with quality. I think, if the free options disappear or are sharply degraded, people will pay for local news. If comment, national news, and entertainment are added to the package, like a traditional newspaper (or cable offering), people will pay more.

And if there is no money to be made in traditional newspaper businesses, there's no way around it: the free options WILL be sharply degraded.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I agree that cable is an example of people ultimately agreeing to pay for something that was (ostensibly) free. There are differences, though: First, cable is entertainment, and since we're more accustomed to having to pay for entertainment we're more likely to pay for it if forced. (It's why people are willing to pay to play World of Warcraft, for example, though they might not pay for an email account. It's why people will pay to go to a baseball game but won't pay for a newspaper that reports scores.) Second, cable companies basically set up a monopoly on their content way before the emergence of free content available online. No media outlet can corner a monopoly on content online, which is why it's so easy to work around sites that require a subscription.

My favorite media outlet is currently the New York Times. If it starts to charge for access, I won't pay. I'll simply seek out another media outlet that doesn't charge. If that outlet starts to charge, I'll look for (or help to build) another one, and so on. I think there are thousands thousands of people out there like me, and unless every media outlet in the world joins forces to charge the same amount at the same time for access, there always will be people like me.

Donna Morris said...

Ms McWilliams: You state the case perfectly, especially in your final-paragraph response to Rozzi. I couldn't agree more.

The Untwitterable said...

Have you seen Epic 2014. It's a free online short film set in 2014 featuring the fate of news media both online and off.

bam - information sharing - check that one off the list.


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