Build a wall, or is it a dam?

There is a fatal flaw in David Simon’s understanding of today’s news reader that allows him to make this assertion in his call for subscription-only news:

For example, if The Baltimore Sun’s product isn’t available in any other fashion than through subscription—online or off—and if there is no profit to be had in delivering the paper product to homes at existing rates, then by all means, jack up those rates—raise hard-copy prices and drive as many readers as possible online, where you charge less, but at a distinct profit.

That flaw is the assumption that if readers encountered an internet devoid of free “big house produced” news, they would all flock to subscribe to those few reliable news sources.  Today’s news reader isn’t simply a surfer looking for quick, free info. Today’s news reader has savvy reading habits far beyond that, to a point where they compare stories, add their own expertise and often their own media.

Up to the 4th page of Simon’s article–which I read online, for free, after the link was shared with me on Twitter–I wanted to believe in his pay-for-content model. But I can’t swallow the comparison of online news consumers with cable television consumers. Yes, many pay a subscription for more, often better tv content. But in an age of on-demand, on DVD and available-for-download programs, the act of watching cable television is becoming old-fashioned, too. If we presume the public will continue to sit and consume content on a producer’s time schedule with a limited set of tools (a remote and a screen), we miss entirely the attitude of today’s news consumer.

As I read on about Simon’s models for his subscriber plan, I puzzled at his limited notion of what a news story really is, or what purpose it should serve, other than to generate an income for the reporter.

Here is a back-of-the-envelope plan. In a metro region the size of Baltimore, where 300,000 once subscribed to a healthy newspaper, imagine an initial market penetration of a tenth of that—30,000 paid subscribers (in a metro region of more than 2.5 million), who are willing to pay $10 per month. This is less than half their previous Sun home-delivery rate for the only product in town that covers local politics, local culture, local sports, and financial news—using paid reporters and paid editors to produce a consistent, professional product.

Where has Simon been while bloggers and startup news organizations become worthy competitors with established news organizations, even gaining press cred at the White House? Does he think they’ll just go away, or decide they had better charge a subscription rate too? It’s laughable to think the Baltimore Sun is the only entity covering local politics, culture, etc., that matters. A brief Google search turns up dozens of pages of information, from reviews to aggregated stories by block, to crime mapping.

Oh, what’s this: www.afro.com ? News coverage in Baltimore specifically targeted towards a community with special interests? The third hit on Google’s list is a window into the African-American community in Baltimore, full of stories about politicians, music, food and neighbors. Why should this content have to compete to get into the Sun when it can be viewed, moderated and shared online for free? Is it less of an authority on the news in that community? Forget vetting stories for sites like this. They live and die on their reputation the same as any news source and they answer to their community. It’s time to get over these notions of “front page” and “above the fold”.  Lots of people are providing good content and sometimes they cover new or underserved areas.

Articles like Simon’s remind me of the story of the formation of the American Medical Association as a response by doctors to the shannanigans of  the numerous snake oil salesman. They saw a need to establish medical authority for the sake of the consumer and thus created an exclusive organization that led to the accrediting process MD’s have to follow now.  Perhaps that was the right thing to do for health care, but I don’t see how creating this notion of authority to separate journalists from the fray (let’s call Simon’s proposal what it really is), does any service for transparency, civic dialog or the distribution of important information.  One-way, authoritative journalism made a few people rich, but it also limited the flow of information.

Now an exponential number of people are out there reporting. It’s up to those of us who care about getting the facts out  for the public to act upon, to employ our skills and our devotion to journalism.  It’s time to teach the man to fish. He’s already in the flood.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Build a wall, or is it a dam?

  1. Definitely agree, Annie.

    Online news readers isn’t looking for “big house produced”: in addition to being savvier, the modern news reader is way more niche-interested.

    Even on the level of general news, the Afro has been around forever doing good work, and for several decades there’s been the City Paper, a truly great free alt-weekly that certainly won’t be charging online: http://www.citypaper.com

    While you might find 30,000 people in Baltimore willing to subscribe to an online product if they had to, they’d definitely be a graying 30,000.

    I don’t think paywalls are the answer, but I’m not willing to write off the unique qualification of local professional journalists either.

    Not that I’ll propose a better solution. At this point I basically subscribe to a pessimistic Mother Jones point of view on it: http://motherjones.com/toc/2009/09/editors-note

    While their answer is altruism a la public radio model, my guess on a probable source of better times for news is that when even more print pubs die off, advertisers will face new realities.

    With far fewer magazines and newspapers people want to read in their hands, there could be a physical shortage of ad space supply. Rather than an exponential rise in junk mail, I predict a slow, merited rise in the valuation of online advertising (and revenues for content generators) as marketing and ad people finally have to revalue web ads.

    • Thanks for writing, Eliot. I would love to see an online ad model work if that enabled more journalists to do real reporting, however, a conversation I heard between Brian Lehrer and Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson left me thinking that’s not the answer. He said when online news was first getting started, CPMs went for $20/ea. Thanks to Google ads, he said, they are now around $0.10/. I think there is more of a glut of online advert space than the opposite. Back to the drawing board!

      ps: I’m encouraged by the Spot.us model, but I’ve heard more seasoned journalists warn against the kind of economy where we only get paid for what people want to hear/see.

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