Why “Free” Won’t Work for Journalism on the Web

The state of online journalism's business model.

In a speech defending journalism Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger recently took a shot at the New York Times‘ decision to erect a paid wall around its content in 2011.

In defense of providing free content, Rusbridger said of the UK-based Guardian:

“During the last three months of 2009 the Guardian was being read by 40 per cent more people than during the same period in 2008. That’s right, a mainstream media company – you know, the ones that should admit the game’s up because they are so irrelevant and don’t know what they are doing in this new media landscape – has grown its audience by 40 per cent in a year.”

It is always good news for a media company to expand its audience – or is it?

Because providing free content is not a sustainable business model for the Guardian or any other publication that conducts serious journalism (I’m talking about journalism – not just reporting).  Online advertising simply doesn’t provide enough revenue to pay for globally dispatched editors and reporters.  So here is a question for Rusbridger:

Could the Guardian even afford to provide free web content if it wasn’t subsidizing the web site by selling content through its print edition?  And how much longer can the Guardian afford these subsidies?

Because here is the real question for newspapers and magazines.  What’s more valuable?  A smaller audience paying for the content or a larger audience not paying for it?

Rusbridger talks about the higher ideals of journalism and wants newspapers and magazines to be an important part of the global dialogue now taking place on the web.  Those are, indeed, worthy goals, but can you really discuss higher ideals when your business model is sinking like a rock?  He acknowledged in his speech:

“If you think about journalism, not business models, you can become rather excited about the future. If you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis.”

There is no doubt that newspapers are responsible for a large part of their problems.  We can all acknowledge that mistakes have been made.  Big mistakes.

I recently wrote a blog post asking whether free content was simply a stage in the Internet’s growth – much like a phase it went through on the retail side during the dot-com era.  I noted that many dot-coms offered free as an enticement to draw in large audiences – free products, free shipping, free returns and free forever offers.  That model proved to be disastrous and helped usher in the dot-bomb era.

It was the second wave of online retailers – and the smart first wavers – that figured out how to profit from online retail.  So is it so outrageous to consider that free content – really free journalism (which is extremely expensive to produce effectively) – on the web is in a temporary “free” stage that is unsustainable and that a paid model will emerge to make it all work?

I think the starting point for many pundits – that content needs to be free on the web – isn’t necessarily true.  I respectfully disagree with Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine who insists that “linking” is a right and “keystone of free speech” not just a bizarre accident that occurred when publishers and others started posting content on the web for free – without much consideration for the consequences.

Jarvis recently wrote: “What’s public is public – that is, we, the public, have a right to observe, point to, share, and comment on it. And the internet is public.”

That simply isn’t true.  Some areas of the web are public – but there are many private, password protected quarters on the Internet.  Large swaths of the Internet may be “open,” but they are privately held.  Take Facebook.  Facebook can ban people from their property and remove their content at will.  People on Facebook can also control their privacy settings – allowing some in and others to be kept out.  That’s pretty much the same at many social networks that allow users increasing degrees of privacy.

Jarvis argues that blocking links is an assault on journalism.  That is patently ridiculous.  What endangers journalism is the idea that newspapers and magazines need to give it away for free – while it costs them money to produce.  And to make matters worse search engines, social bookmarking sites, and content aggregators can then use this journalism to enrich their own coffers and don’t have to help produce it or pay for it.  Now that’s what is really ridiculous.

I’m sorry, but if I have to decide which is more important to society – the New York Times or Del.icio.us – my vote goes to the Times.

We are all now conditioned at getting online data and information for free.  But just because that’s the way it is now doesn’t mean it will always be this way.  The dot-com era proved that poor business models – particularly the ones that promised “free forever” quickly went out of business.  And there will always be a lot of content on the Internet that will always be free – blogs, government documents and reports, retail sites, books no longer under copyright, companies and organizations that want to provide free data, etc.

Even a lot of journalism can remain free – if we change the rules.  I offer a few suggestions on how journalism can be kept accessible on the web – while being paid for by those that consume it:

  • Why do we have choose between only two states for content: open and closed?  In other words, why must content either be free or sold?  Can’t it be both?  Can news outlets keep content behind a paid wall for the first 24-hours and then release it afterwards?  Consumers would then pay for access to the immediacy of the news when it is most valuable.  Outlets could then release the archival material to allow for its use in the public record.
  • Create a model where search engines and content aggregators need to share profits with the content producers.  So if Google sends traffic to the Boston Globe, the Globe gets a small percentage of the profits Google makes from selling advertising around the search terms that lead the user to the Globe‘s web site.  Google is, after all, profiting by accessing other people’s content and they should be charged a fee for that – just like anyone who borrows or uses material with a copyright.  Blogs and other news sites would be allowed to “link” as long as they cited and credited the source of the link.
  • Form a formal partnership between the search engines and aggregators and the publishing industry where together they share the revenue that they generate together.  Think of the NFL – of all things – as a model.  The teams pool the TV revenues into a pot – and split it.  Would it be so hard to figure out an equitable system to allow revenue sharing for every entity that profits from journalism so that we can afford to pay for it?

These are my feeble suggestions.  It might be a simply as changing the pricing models on online advertising.  But I’m sure that the answer is out there (and hopefully the New York Times will discover it when it launches its paid wall in 2011).  But just like Apple figured out a way to make selling music online work, there is a way to make journalism work on the web as well.

But I’m eager to get your take on this.  What do you think is the future of online journalism?  Is “free” content a model that can work for news outlets?

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