THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: NEWS DOES NOT WANT TO BE FREE

Three Cures for Ailing Newspapers

“I feel I’m being catapulted into another world, a world I don’t really understand,” Denis Finley told the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Finley, editor of the Virginian-Pilot, isn’t the only newspaper executive who can’t come up with a plan for the future. “Only 5 percent of [newspaper editors and publishers],” finds Pew’s latest analysis of the nation’s 1217 daily newspapers, “said they were very confident of their ability to predict what their newsrooms would look like five years from now.”

Newspapers are in trouble. More people read them than ever, but most of them read them online, for free. Unfortunately online advertising rates are too low to make up for declining print circulation. A reader of The New York Times‘ print edition generates about 170 times as much revenue as someone who surfs NYTimes.com. (This is because print readers spend 47 minutes with the paper. Online browsers visit the paper’s website a mere seven minutes–some of which they might not even be sitting in front of their computers.)

Newspaper executives don’t know what to do. Papers are closing foreign bureaus and laying off thousands of reporters. No matter how many employees they fire, however, they can’t slash or burn their way to profitability–there just isn’t enough budget to cut in a future where income has dropped to 1/170th.

“Newspapers,” writes San Jose State University business professor Joel West, “face two structural problems and have been unable to fix either one.” One is the Web in general, which offers advertisers more, finely targeted access to readers. The other is news on the Web, which is free on sites like Google and Yahoo (which compile AP and other wire service stories), as well as the newspaper websites themselves.

“OK,” argues West, “The New York Times or the big city daily has better news, but how much better? If it’s $20/month (or even $10 or merely requires a login) will readers bother? Most won’t. As with other commodities, better loses to ‘good enough.'”

But it doesn’t have to. If publishers take three audacious but absolutely essential steps, the print newspaper industry can save itself. All three of my suggestions are predicated on the simplest principle of capitalism: scarcity increases demand.

Newspapers have made news free and plentiful, which is why they’re going broke.

First: newspapers should go offline. If the last decade has proven anything, it’s that you can’t charge for a product–in this case, news–that you give away. So stop! All the members of the Newspaper Association of America should shut down their websites. At the very least, papers ought to charge online readers twice as much as for print subscriptions–searchability must be worth something. Want news? Buy a “dead tree” newspaper.

Second, copyright every article in the newspaper.

“The majority of bloggers and Internet addicts, like the endless rows of talking heads on television, do not report,” notes the invaluable Chris Hedges. “They are largely parasites who cling to traditional news outlets…They rarely pick up the phone, much less go out and find a story. Nearly all reporting–I would guess at least 80 percent–is done by newspapers and the wire services. Take that away and we have a huge black hole.” And a lot of unfulfilled demand one can charge for.

Newsgathering requires extensive infrastructure. Beat reporters, freelancers, editors, stringers, fact-checkers, and travel cost a lot of money. (A week in rural Afghanistan costs at least $10,000.) Why shouldn’t newspapers–the main newsgathering organizations in the United States–be compensated for those expenses?

Every newspaper article should enjoy an individual, aggressively enforced, copyright. Radio and TV outlets that currently lift their news reports out of newspapers–without forking over a cent–would have to hire reporters or pay papers a royalty. Paying newspapers for usage, even at a high rate, would probably be cheaper.

Step three on the road back to fiscal viability: cut off the wire services. Nowadays an article written for a local paper can get picked up by a wire service, which sells it for a ridiculously low reprint fee to other papers and websites like Google. At bare minimum, newspapers that originate stories ought to require wires to charge would-be reprinters the thousands of dollars each piece is worth. Better yet, don’t post them in the first place.

There are a couple of problems with my prescription. First, my suggestions only work if every paper follows them. Aside from the cat-herding organizational hurdles, accusations of collusion and price-fixing might bring down the wrath of government officials assigned to enforcing anti-trust laws. Second and perhaps more daunting, the “information wants to be free” mantra, once the cry of wacko libertarians, has become state religion.

“Free” doesn’t mean anything, and it obviously hasn’t worked. But it’s hard to purge a brain of a meme, no matter how moronic.

COPYRIGHT 2008 TED RALL

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30 Responses to “”

  1. Tony Says:

    “But it’s hard to purge a brain of a meme, no matter how moronic.”

    I dunno… Spock Ate My Balls seems pretty dried up these days.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I found the whole article moronic … have the newspapers go offline? HA, not a faster way to die my friend, than taking that course of action

  3. david essman Says:

    Prescription B: T-shirts!

    “Beat reporters, freelancers, editors, stringers, fact-checkers, and travel cost a lot of money”

    I don’t think it’s just a matter of saving newspapers, but saving good journalism. Looking at it purely financially, wouldn’t it just be more cost effective to be propaganda. No reporters or fact checkers, just “news” that comes straight from the government’s mouths.

    it’s the fact that internet ad rates are so low that is hurting online newspapers. Even ‘free news’ isn’t free. Alt weeklies have lots of ads. Local news stations and radio broadcast commercials.

    If they would cut off wire services like you said. They could sell people customized news, something you can’t really get in print. A fixed price a month/year will get you comparable content to a print paper, but you pick the contents. choose x number of columnists , editorial cartoons, news etc. Make a custom comics page(like mycomics page or comics extra). if you want an extra columnist or a few more sports stories a day, that could cost a little more, just like cable/satellite TV.

    and have it delivered to your inbox everyday in pdf or some new form they could create, which could demand more digital readers like amazon’s kindle or ipod touch.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    How do earn any revenue for your columns and cartoons, available freely on yahoo and in your rall.com? Can you live with paid only access to rall.com or a charge of $0.43 for this comment to be posted on the blogger?

    Doctors used to complain that common people are acting like doctors. Now, everyone who has access to a blog site, behaves like a journalist. And pity is real newspapers compete with them, by offering themselves as if they have some other day job.

    There should be a fee for online news, agreed. Online news is more green. With a fee, it could be sustainable too. But just being out there on the web means you can always be peeked at – thanks to technology.

    How about something like on-demand one. I don’t want to subscribe to “tabloid” kind of stories appearing on SF Chronicle. But sure, will pay some small amounts for some other stories. Can I pay some big amount upfront. And they can keep deducting as I read stories at their site. Newspapers have to come creative while charging. It is very unfair to expect me to pay for a whole year subscription for stories that are repeats of government press releases. With their ass on fire, press will come with more options and solutions to maintain their sustainability.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Sorry Ted, wrong again. As usual.

    1: Newspapers are dead if they go offline. End of story. They’ll go extinct even quicker than they will now.

    2 and 3: Nope again. Maybe you haven’t heard but “information wants to be free”. If it can go digital, it will be free.

    It’s funny. Several years ago, I was forced to accept the new “model” for selling music, essentially that a musician has to give away his hard work for free and make money some other way, such as performing an/or merchandise. I was forced to suck it up. To all other mediums that are now in the sights of digital media, I say this: “SUCK IT UP!”.
    Newspapers, books, movies, artwork, and yes – cartoons. It’s all going online, and it will all be free.

    SUCK IT UP!!!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Ted,

    The owners of media of all kinds have seen this coming for over two decades. They’ve been employing all the well-known maneuvers to attempt to maintain their position of control. Fewer very large organizations and increased governmental support in the form of intellectual property rights protections and enforcements have been the primary strategies.

    There is a huge problem when it comes to funding journalists, investigative reporters and commentators like yourself. That I would not deny. It is a very serious problem.

    This kind of crisis and response has occurred in the past when there were major changes in technology and the initial moves were similar. Part of this modern crisis is that advertising become the source of funding. While I can’t cite a source offhand, my best recollection was that some economists thought that this was a bad move in more than one way.

    I do not know what the solution will look like but it will require different institutional arrangements. Intellectual property rights were initially put into law to protect the creators by granting them a monopoly. That evolved to the advantage of publishers. The cost of physical publication and distribution, especially the entry cost, was very high. That has changed dramatically.

    The technological hooks are there to guage whether a creator is, indeed, a creator, i.e., folks value their work enough to read, listen, look, etc at it. Whatever objections there may be to accuracy of these counts, it is an engineering problem and real obstacles have to do with people agreeing to what constitutes a good enough solution. The other part is the funding mechanism and that is something that any real economist and a few accountants can work out, law makers can do what they need to do and any needed institutions can be established. Of course it will not be perfect. Look at the species trying to pull it off. Not much of a record of perfection there.

    This is the kind of problem people can solve and have solved when they got around to solving it. Right now, I think, there is still the hope that the old solutions can be made to work. It just has not hit the “back to the drawing board” stage where folks sit down and decide what is important and what it takes to get the job done.

    I have no clue as to what it will move folks to say, “Enough is enough. Let’s sort this out again.” Aside from telepathy, I don’t think the technology is going to get all that much cheaper.

    I figure it will take another generation. In the meantime, I hope you and many others find a way to keep surviving.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    The primary reason I don’t read the ‘dead tree’ newspaper is it almost always contains yesterday’s news. There will never be a solution for this problem.

    The only option left then is for newspapers to require paid subscriptions to read their online content.

    Of course that assumes there will be interested readers. Based upon modern observations of the youth of this country I really doubt most of them care what’s in the ‘news’ these days unless it concerns the latest Hollyweird actor/actress.

  8. Sean C. Ledig Says:

    As a former newspaper reporter, let me say a big AMEN! and TESTIFY BROTHER!

    No one in management at my former company has ever been able to explain why giving it away free online makes any kind of business sense.

    But then, what did I know? I was just a beat reporter.

  9. Tom Dell'Aringa Says:

    These are the same faulty arguments that Ted supplied during the whole webcomic discussion. Sooner or later, you’ll have to accept that the world has changed – period.

    News is now, and always will be, essentially free. Forget reporters and stringers – you have millions upon millions of reporters submitting stories every day – it’s your everday Joe who blogs, e-mails and twitters news across the globe.

    Why spend 10 grand to send someone to Afghanistan? How stupid, when there are thousands of people there already. Someone knows someone there who can write about it – for free – or at least the cost of a phone call.

    It’s laughable to think that papers would go OFF the internet. There is value there if they can learn to use it wisely. (And the previous commenter is right – then they would merely cut their throats quicker) Just because they have to change, doesn’t mean they have to die.

    But they are going to be minimized by the new shift. Lots of people, including Ted, don’t like that.

    It’s understandable – and inevitable.

    Sorry Ted.

  10. Benjamin Melançon Says:

    Viewing the market as the only approach really makes all the options bad, when it comes to rewarding ideas:
    http://mlncn.com/node/599

  11. Marion Delgado Says:

    As someone who’s spent much of his adult life in the news biz (print and radio, dailies and weeklies) and has moved on to a position doing nothing but online stuff for a print daily, I agree with much of the thrust of your op-ed viscerally, but I think it’s not workable. Ironically, when our paper was trying to consolidate and plan ahead in 2000 to increase circulation (we failed), I was sounding the alarm about all this. I had people call me (the webmaster) and say they were canceling the paper – literally – because they could now read it online. (I insisted we not at least put the frills like TV and comics on line ever or make them easily accessible).

    What I see happening, instead, is roughly this:

    1. The online world will get a partial break because newsprint keeps going up faster than the general inflation rate. The internet is simply not as pricey as brick-and-mortar, either.

    2. The online world will get another partial break because the next generations of “news consumers” are not going back to print.

    3. The online world will get yet another break from the homogenous nature of national and world news. This is partly because you’ll have a hell of a time getting rid of the wire services or making them expensive. Hence, people sick of corporate news won’t see any value in paying for Dana Milbank, Joe Klein, Mike Isikoff, or whatever other apparatchik is supposed to give them the Line of the Day on what the news is.

    Maybe, in a sense, the internet driven news will be less accurate, comprehensive, etc. but like magazines it will also be more tailored.

    4. Just as papers die in cities until one is left, they’ll probably die regionally till one is left. Those papers will have to work out a balance of costs and prices for paper and online.

    5. Free weeklies may survive longer in areas than dailies do.

    6. The news industry will get more like the music industry.

    7. Good luck copyrighting facts. Our intellectual property regime in the US is already a productivity destroying nightmare. Factual information is practically a utility already, and even capitalist die-hards acknowledge that those are natural monopolies, not really amenable to Econ 101 models for apple-pie shops. The best angle on that is how encyclopedias do it – poorly and barely, and some even resort to putting false facts strategically in their work to sting stealers.

    8. Advertising will move from its current 60-66% of revenue to virtually all of it. People are conditioned to think of ad-paid content as “free.”

  12. evilkumquat Says:

    I have three observations:

    1) Why not have governmentally subsidized news? Basically, journalists would receive governmental grants, not unlike the National Endowment of the Arts, yet be guaranteed freedom from governmental control. How this would be achieved, I have no idea, but there are already industries similar to this: teachers get their pay from tax dollars, yet have a lot of latitude on what they can discuss in the classroom. Why can’t this same thing be brought to the Fourth Estate?

    2) My local paper has both a print and online version. However, to read the entire article online (and not just the opening paragraph) requires the purchase of a regular (printed) subscription.

    3) Thank you. I forgot all about “Mr. T Ate My Balls”.

  13. Richard Says:

    We have two daily newspapers here in Aspen that are still growing and do very well. They give them away free and rely on ads for revenue…they seem to be raking in the bucks. Everyone reads them and they publish ALL the letters…probablly the only place in the world that actually has free expression of opinion. They are available free online, but most seem to prefer the print edition. Admittedly, they also print the lying crap from the AssoCIAted press, but only because they are too lazy to source real news from the Internet.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Well, in theory I agree with you, however practically what you suggest is a pipe dream. “Nothing gold can stay” and you can’t stop the march to the future. Gradually, step by step, this era of capitalism is dying.

  15. Matt Bors Says:

    “Tom Dell’Aringa said…News is now, and always will be, essentially free.”

    You’re wrong. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to have a small staffed bureau opened in a foreign country. Investigative journalism is a huge expense.

    These have mostly been financed through ads sold in print papers and mags. The net has way more readers and can’t come close to competing.

    Whatever happens, the news industry has to figure out a way to pay for the work it does. Simply declaring it “free” isn’t an argument the accounting department would likely make to the board.

    You suggest someone in Afghanistan should report on it for free. Perhaps you can take a full-time job for your local paper…for free. Do you work for free now?

  16. ellwort Says:

    “Everyone can write.” – Peter Elbow.
    See also: “Talk is cheap.”
    We don’t change the f-ed up system by making concessions. Retreat = imprimatur.
    I wanna hear what everybody else has to say. Don’t you?
    YOU connect the dots.

  17. ellwort Says:

    Thin ice, moreover.
    Ted – Maybe this skates closer to the unstable edges of the First Amendment than you want be?

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Ted,

    Your argument was flawed as soon as it began.

    “All three of my suggestions are predicated on the simplest principle of capitalism: scarcity increases demand.”

    If Newspapers were to do this; you would in fact need EVERY single newspaper in the WORLD to do this. Why would the BBC or A(u)BC or the CBC, etc. do this? They don’t care about the U.S. economy. Moreover; I would find it rather impossible to purchase a lot of these newspapers here.

    Information is free. Why? Because of the basis of your solution. Capitalism.

    There is a scarcity of volunteer firefighters. Of course demand is increased if supply decreases; because the demand stays the same. So why aren’t people volunteering to go running into a burning building?

    A fungible resource such as news can be compared to gasoline. Many offices I’ve been to carpool; also many of those offices buy one newspaper and share it.

    If high gas prices have proven anything; is that Americans are willing to give away luxury items to their breaking point. Why not the news?

    Lastly, what about Television? Even with an antenna for free you can get the news! How will you defeat that?

    The road to an open society (this is comming from a red) is freedom of information and making it free. A clampdown will affect the spread of information so much; that the Japanese Army could invade and be at your door before you even know it.

    Sound ridiculous? With the high prices of luxuries and necessities; what makes you think that Americans will pay to read about the news? Afghanistan; Iraq; Iran; the whole world will be forgotten by the U.S.A.

    Personally; I know a lot of people will do either of those two things I spoke of. Buy a newspaper for a whole office building and they all take turns reading it. Or wait to go home and watch TV.

    Sorry Ted but the days of paid information are defunct; nay, they are long long dead.

    If the end of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany proved anything is that a nation which is deprived of information is willing to accept information from abroad -even if its propaganda and lies (Radio Free Europe).

    The only reason I see to keep newspapers alive is so that the bums have something to cover themselves with in these cold hard nights of Capitalism.

    Sorry Ted, but people call me old all the time (in my early twenties) in fact a man once thought I was 45 because of the way I talked. But even I changed with the times.

  19. Tom Dell'Aringa Says:

    @Matt – my point was it’s free to ME. People aren’t going to Afghanistan for the purpose of reporting the news (well they are, but not the people I mean).

    They are already there – and they disseminate news via what now is a global society. So a soldier there is actually there to serve in that capacity, but he becomes a news source by talking to people he knows. Same thing with contractors and other folks in those types of places.

    Plus you have locals themselves getting on the internet and essentially reporting – it gets picked up and passed on.

    This is not structured, corporate news I’m talking about that Ted wants to keep alive. It’s rather a new type of news that has seeped into the system via blogs, forums, feeds, etc.

    If you think the wires and such aren’t feeding off these sources, you are sadly mistaken.

    As has been said, TV, radio – all free to me. I don’t buy papers, haven’t for years. I have no need to at all anymore – and has been said too – its *stale* news. Why bother? I got it all 24 hours ago.

    The papers have to adapt as news sources, and that doesn’t mean leaving the internet – it means EMBRACING it. Find a new model.

    The ones that do will survive, the ones that don’t – bye bye.

    It’s game changing time. Some will die and some will succeed.

  20. plushtown Says:

    Newspapers should increase (double? triple?)cartoon pages, originally put in to increase circulation. The cartoons themselves cost little, big cost is the paper.

    Putting more truth in would also help circulation, but hurt advertising. More political cartoons might help also, less likely to anger advertisers than prose truths, but gets dicey (Thomas Nash would be assassinated if alive currently.)

  21. John S Says:

    I liked this column a lot. I have always enjoyed the NY Times. I paid for the Times Select when the service cost money a couple of years ago. I’m guessing Maureen’s readers dropped off during this period. I was, however, shocked when they canceled the “pay for content” and then refunded the part for the year I had already paid and enjoyed.

    The same thing seems to be happening with the Wall Street Journal. I paid 100 dollars for a year of both paper delivery and complete online access. A rather cheap fee for so much information and reporting. But then I learned through the news that the new parent company of the WSJ is looking at no longer charging for this. Is it because they feel that being profitable is less important than being popular?

    I think I could do really well for a while as a popular trillionaire who started a company to give away my products. I would maybe start a car company, design and build the greatest, safest, fastest, and most economical car in the world, then sell them at a substantial loss with a sales force designed to make any deal happen. I’d promote our company as being the highest volume sales car company in the world. We’d have advertising, conferences, and I think could take a massive market share. Eventually I’d be well known as a car designer and businessman. And I wouldn’t need to worry about the headaches of being a trillionaire

  22. Jon M. Says:

    Ted, why are you posting this online for free then? Why aren’t you leading the charge?

    Could it be because you’re afraid people won’t pay for it?

  23. Joe Chiappetta Says:

    I like this concept Ted specifically because it is radical and would require unprecedented international collaboration on a solid level. If you could get past that hurdle, the rest would fall into place. The outcome would be fascinating.

    I do realize that this thumbs up may be ironic coming from me, someone who has been posting webcomics online free in between major print collections of my work, but still, I would enjoy watching this bold model unfold if it were possible to get the cooperation.

    If not, at the very least, it would make for a good background plot for a novel.

  24. Incitatus Says:

    I’m with the first anonymous, Ted: your prescription is a sure guarantee of a fast death. But that’s a good thing: the speedier, the better and good riddance old-style media!

  25. Anonymous Says:

    I really do think its funny how the Reich paints Ted as a Communist/Socialist when in fact he’s a raging Capitalist.

  26. Angelo Says:

    you free newsers are gonna report on the ground in Afghanistan for fucking free?

    get real.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    Ted, Are you there? Almost everyone disagreed with you! Hello.

    In fact the free access to your work made me to connect to your works, and now I subscribed for early read of your work.

  28. Fouad Says:

    Ted,
    Being a loyal reader means sticking with you threw thick and thin. I’ve even read an article you wrote that never was published about fathers day. This is probably the second time since I’ve started reading your work back in ’02 that I disagree with your view on the topic(technically the 3rd time since you’ve written about this before).

    Pretty much I feel that these newspapers that are going under are the same ones that failed us during the run up to the Iraq war, and there failing us now as we sleep walk into a war with Iran – these papers are sinking because they fail to do what there consumers pay them to do, report. They really don’t and sadly enough it takes a satirist like Colbert to point that out.

    p.s if your wondering the first I didn’t agree with your views was recently when you were against Kosovo independence. I feel that they were treated horribly and therefore deserve a chunk of the country that massacred them. Now I don’t agree with why the US government is supporting them, to place military bases and missile silos to intimidate Russia – but I do like the fact that atleast there doing the “somewhat” right thing.

  29. Ted Rall Says:

    It’s true that (in this column) I didn’t address the myriad of ways newspapers have fucked up. They’re committing suicide, what with their obsession with keeping aging readers instead of attracting younger ones, and kowtowing to the government and lying politicians.

    I’ve written about this stuff in other places and at other times; it’s hard to get everything you want to say into a column.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    Second and perhaps more daunting, the “information wants to be free” mantra, once the cry of wacko libertarians, has become state religion.

    “Free” doesn’t mean anything, and it obviously hasn’t worked. But it’s hard to purge a brain of a meme, no matter how moronic.

    Very funny.
    That is the best piece of satire I have seen in a long time.

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