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.