Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The newspaper suicide pact

Primarily written Friday night at O'Hare International. Lightly edited, with links added today. --dc

I think I'll remember last week as the moment when I finally knew, with a certainty approaching fatigue, that the newspaper industry – the business and passion that both shaped and warped me over the past 20 years – had chosen ritual suicide. The choice appears grimly reached and irrevocable.

The issue is "paid content." That's the generic term. I consider it a euphemism for an entire suite of frustrations and furies that have been boiling out of my former profession since its once-invincible business model began its final slide to the deep in 2008. On the surface, paid content is the reasonable idea that people should have to pay for the professionally produced content they consume. Its core, however, is a post-rational demand that consumers abandon their habits of the past decade in favor of new behaviors intended to restore media companies to the profitability ordained to them by God Almighty.

Does it matter that this is an idea with a known, recent history of failure? Or that human beings have no intention of paying for news they've always received for free? Does it matter that we already  know a return to the paywall-era of the early 2000s will cost these legacy media companies money they will never recoup? No, no and no.

There has been no shortage of writing debunking this, but what of it? The audience that counts in this case – media company executives – decided this future sometime earlier this spring. All that remains now are the details and marketing terms: "Paywalls" are out; "Pay Windows" are in. The wall must be easy to use, but it must also be "permeable." And so on.

Confused? Don't be. Your newspaper overlords believe they can sell you their content if they can just get  everybody on the same page and nail the sales pitch this time. They're looking for the magic words, not the underlying logic (the tricky part? Doing all this without breaking federal anti-trust law).

This is folly, of course. Even MIT Technology Review Editor and Publisher Justin Jason Pontin concluded that news and opinion must be given away to the aggregators, and that was in an essay advancing the case for paid content.

Pontin comes from the magazine field, which suffers from similar woes but is a fundamentally different beast than the general bundling machine we call the American metro newspaper. All sorts of content can be sold online quite profitably (you can read my thoughts on this here and here), but trying to force people to pay for generic news content because your advertising rates have dropped so low they no longer cover the cost of your operations? Have fun selling that one, boys.

And sell it they are. This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There's the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They've argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the "blame the bloggers" approach flop? OK: Blame Google.


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