Thursday, July 16, 2009

David Simon to NYT, WP: Make Web Readers Pay Now!

Yet another call for making viewers pay for online journalism -- this time from David Simon in the current Columbia Journalism Review.

Simon is the Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-TV producer (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire) who offered Congressional testimony in May on the sad state of affairs in the newspaper business. Back then, his solution was for newspapers to pursue a non-profit model. Now he's singing a different tune.

His thought-provoking article, "Build the Wall," acknowledges that most readers won't pay for news, but if the industry moves quickly, perhaps enough will.

Simon specifically addresses New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
Content matters. And you must find a way, in the brave new world of digitization, to make people pay for that content. If you do this, you still have a product and there is still an industry, a calling, and a career known as professional journalism. If you do not find a way to make people pay for your product, then you are—if you choose to remain in this line of work—delusional.
He offers a bold all-or-nothing blueprint:

On a specific date in the near future—let’s say September 1 for the sheer immediacy of it—both news organizations must inform readers that their Web sites will be free to subscribers only, and that while subscription fees can be a fraction of the price of having wood pulp flung on doorsteps, it is nonetheless a requirement for acquiring the contents of the news organizations that spend millions to properly acquire, edit, and present that work.

No half-measures, either. No TimesSelect program that charges for a handful of items and offers the rest for free, no limited availability of certain teaser articles, no bartering with aggregators for a few more crumbs of revenue through microbilling or pennies-on-the-dollar fees. Either you believe that what The New York Times and The Washington Post bring to the table every day has value, or you don’t.
Given that the Times is already surveying its subscribers to find out what they'd be willing to pay to access online content, it seems assured that this is the direction that it will go. The big question, which Simon also addresses, is how will this affect smaller local newspapers? He offers several possible scenarios, some grimmer than others.

In all, a lengthy treatise well worth your time.

Naturally, because of our obsession with videojournalism, we have yet to encounter a financial plan that effectively leverages each newspaper's most unique asset, and so far its only one that can be safeguarded against being devalued by easy reproduction and distribution. If you have given thought to that sort of scheme, we're all ears!

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