The fact that newspaper owners both smart and dumb have found no better medicine for their ailing bottom lines than to practice the medieval art of bleeding has led me to question one of the axioms of the modern newspaper business model: Giving away news for free will bring higher profits... someday.
I say this as someone whose job and lifestyle depend on free access. I gorge on media that I could never afford if I had to pay individual subscription fees. I have come to expect that a simple click will take me from the collected wisdom of The Atlantic to the collected wisdom of the New Yorker, from Time's Middle East updates to Politico's campaign coverage, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to a sea of local papers and blogs in between. All without spending a dime. It's a fucking godsend.
It's also the death rot at the foundation of many small- and mid-size publications (which will, in turn, erode the quality of larger publications that they rely on the small guys to refill the talent pool.)
Why is free the problem? It's not strictly a financial issue. Rather, it's one of value.
Imagine you run a successful restaurant. You employ a healthy staff to do the jobs required to keep the place a going concern - creative cooks, attentive wait staff, charismatic bartenders, janitors, dishwashers, parking attendants, etc. Food is the game, the centerpiece of your business. The menu is your selling point, the chef your star attraction.
Then one day you discover your competition has started giving away food for free. They've decided they can make money on pricey cocktails, parking fees and fat tips. To stay in the game, you realize you'll have to give away food for free and hope you'll make up the difference on side businesses, too.
Whether or not you can survive on the bar tabs, how long will it be before great food and top chefs become secondary concerns? How long before you let the quality slip? How long before you hire a less-experienced chef to make it cheaper and faster? How long before you cut the kitchen staff, simplify recipes and lard on the trans-fats and salts to add flavor? After all, you're giving it away free. Sure, you might want to keep the menu as fresh and exciting as possible, but when times are tight and you're bottom line is shrinking, you fire the people who aren't bringing in the cash.
That's why even Las Vegas charges something for the buffet.
Now substitute news for food and you'll have a good idea of what I think is the mindset of the average newspaper owner these days. They look out into the newsroom and see all expense and no profit. They see cubicles full of welfare cases in waiting. News is no longer the game, nor the focus of the business. While we journalists talk about the intrinsic value of news, they talk about the cost of a newsroom that's not carrying its own weight.
Then there are the customers. Americans love to get things for free, but they're generally suspicious of anything that's given away. They often equate free with cheap. As the reader expects less and takes more for granted, the brand and the trust degrade.
So, what's the solution?
Monetizing the newsroom isn't the answer because a monetized newsroom is a compromised newsroom. It runs against the grain of credibility.
Instead, I think newsrooms will have to institute some type of subscription fee. I'm not saying the fee has to be a big moneymaker, but there has to be a more direct link between the news product and the bottom line. Otherwise, business owners are going to keep treating the news side like a bastard child.
But until the New York Times and Washington Post stop giving it away, I'm not sure how any smaller paper can charge a subscription with a straight face. Unless a new wave of city papers spring up ...that will require a healthy mix of guts and serendipity.
The other option is for rich fuckers to set up endowments and start treating newspapers like universities. I'm not going to hold my breath on that idea either.