Tuesday, February 10, 2009

3 Ways to Rescue Newspapers... Without Killing Them

American newspapers are dying fast. What can possibly rescue them?

The current stopgap remedies (layoffs, ceasing home delivery, gutting entire sections and bureaus) are only making matters worse -- destroying the product and repelling more readers (and, hence, advertisers). Desperate cost-cutting can only lead to an irreversible death spiral.

Nobody questions that our democracy demands an independent watchdog Fourth Estate, but with the advent of the Web and it's "free content" protocol, nobody's yet figured out a sustainable business model to keep newsrooms alive.

Here are three novel solutions.

First, independent journalist T.J. Sullivan proposes that all newspapers simultaneously shut down their websites for a week, so that readers will be forced to pay for the print version. ("You'll miss me when I'm gone.")

Second, in a Time cover story, former managing editor Walter Isaacson advances a micropayment model, akin to iTunes, whereby readers would pay pennies to read individual articles, and those aggregator blogs that feed off news sites will have to pay royalty-based licensing fees. ("Fair is fair.")

Third, Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing supports an NPR-based approach, whereby content remains free, but regular users are encouraged to donate to the sites they frequent most often, via a monthly subscription that's divvied among their Web destinations. ("This will only sting a little.")

Sullivan has posted a petition calling for

...each and every daily American newspaper and The Associated Press (to) shut down their Web sites to non-paying subscribers for a period of one week -- from Saturday July 4 to Friday July 10, 2009 -- and during such time publish news only in print, or behind existing, password-protected Internet barriers accessible only by paying subscribers.

We believe such action will allow newspapers and The Associated Press to fulfill their obligations to deliver news during this time while also drawing attention to the threat posed to democracy by the loss of professionally staffed and ethically bound American newspapers.

Of course, news would still be reported daily in every newspaper's printed product. No editor, or reporter or publication would dare shirk their watchdog responsibilities. This isn't about stopping the presses.

But the Web? People can do without news on the Web for a week. They won't like it. They'll complain about it. But, that's exactly what has to happen before they can be expected to care. Pulling the plug gets their attention... This isn't about saving journalism jobs; it's about saving American democracy.
In his Time cover story, Isaacson points out the paradox underscoring the newspaper crisis:

Newspapers have more readers than ever. Their content, as well as that of newsmagazines and other producers of traditional journalism, is more popular than ever — even (in fact, especially) among young people.

The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news. A tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. Who can blame them? Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it.

This is not a business model that makes sense.

Isaacson appeared as a guest this week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss his micropayment scheme:

But Editor & Publisher's Outing says fooey to micropayments.

Ugh. This approach hasn't worked. It won't work. Is completely counter to the nature of the Internet. It will hasten newspapers' death spiral.
Instead, he proposes Kachingle


Kachingle is an embryonic service that plans to charge subscribers a small voluntary monthly fee (starting at $5) that will be distributed among affiliated websites who wear the Kachingle badge, based on actual traffic.

Think of it this way and you'll understand the core concept behind Kachingle: Just as online users currently pay an Internet provider and perhaps a monthly fee for all the music they want from a service like Rhapsody, they'll also pay a monthly fee for all the news and blog content on the Web. Only the last fee is voluntary, and it will be up to publishers to educate the public on the importance of paying for content online. (National Public Radio has been doing this for itself for decades. Now commercial news publishers and bloggers need to do it to benefit all of them, not just one entity.)

The next important point to grasp about the Kachingle model is that it allows individuals to financially support the online content providers that they like best. So if a newspaper wants to get paid for its content when a Web site visitor clicks through to one of its articles, it should ask that the visitor support the site via Kachingle.
Unfortunately, judging from its skeletal website and blog, Kachingle seems very much in its formative stages, so it's premature to evaluate its potential merits.

Everyone's struggling to invent a new business model to rescue newspapers. Whoever succeeds will become a superhero -- and probably a very wealthy one. We'd love to hear your thoughts. Especially if your solution incorporates the power of videojournalism in the mix.

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