08 March 2009

The Future of Newspapers: Information as Private Property?

Amid the death knells sounded recently for the newspaper business, here's a comment from a business-oriented magazine that endorses the conventional wisdom that the medium's only future is online, but with the caveat that publishers must find a way to establish property rights to the information they gather in order to survive. The author suggests that making news free on web sites is undermining newspapers' only hope, but notes that "monetizing" information will certainly meet resistance from Internet users who insist that "information wants to be known." Publishers and editors are already arguing asserting a kind of labor theory of value, pointing out that "information" only comes into being through arduous research and reporting, and that the people who do the investigation are entitled to property rights and proper compensation for their trouble. The article ends with a harsh warning that the demise of newspapers would create a vacuum most likely to be filled by a state-run news service -- something to be abhorred. That sounds like scaremongering, since TV would still be out there, but the author clearly wants to shock online readers out of their complacency.

Many newspapers have already tried pay-for-access online, and most retreated back to free access before the latest steep drops in advertising revenue forced them to reconsider. Charging a fee makes sense if only because you have to pay for the print version of the paper already. The problem the first time was that publishers never made pay-for-access a universal policy. I don't know if there's any governing body that could do so, though I suppose it would go a long way if the Associated Press and other wire services insisted on the policy. Newsgathering has always depended upon the patronage of paying readers, so the idea that the Internet could become a news medium that could match newspapers' resources simply on the basis of ad revenues is really a myth.

Even if publishers succeed in monetizing news, the online marketplace differs dramatically from any locality where print editions are sold. In a typical town a local paper competes with papers covering the same general area, along with major regional papers (those from New York City in my case) and the national papers (USA Today and the Wall Street Journal). By comparison, the Internet is a free-for-all, with every paper in the country and many around the world competing for readers' loyalty. If a user must choose whom to pay, he may decide based on his interest in purely local news, or if his interests are broader, he'll more likely decide based on political affinity, subscribing to a "liberal" or "conservative" publication. The result could be a further polarization of public opinion, with the emergence of national online "papers" with indelible ideological stamps on them, and more people ignoring opposite points of view if they prefer exclusively partisan content to the print medium's customary mix of viewpoints. That would be unfortunate, but it might be the only way that publishers survive. If so, the burden will be on someone to come up with better ideologies, and better ways to sell them.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the future lies not in putting newspapers online, but in journalists themselves banding together to form websites where their stories are available for a price/download. Get rid of editors, get rid of publishers. Which means local advertisers who can't afford tv/radio and are too old fashioned to be bothered with the 'net will be looking for old-timey broadsheets to advertise themeselves in.

hobbyfan said...

Or: a collective of bloggers pooling resources together on every available topic. If the newspaper as we know it goes the way of the Edsel, then we're one step closer to the Orwellian vision of a dystopic future. Not a fun thought.

Samuel Wilson said...

"Bloggers" is probably too broad a term, since most of us live off what reporters produce. A reporters' cooperative, perhaps built on the skeleton of any remaining writers' union, might have a chance of pulling this project off. The next question would be whether all the reporters could agree on an editorial point of view, or whether they'd aspire to the 20th century model of "objective" reporting despite the skepticism of the 21st century.