Why newspapers should give it away free

By Steve Outing

In a comment to an earlier blog item, I got the following question from Larry. (I’ll answer in a new blog item, so that it’s more likely to be seen.)

As the new media guy for a couple alt-weeklies and long-time reader of your columns, in response to your post here, I am coming to you with this question: What do you think of the opinion of Mr. Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, that the newspaper industry is, in fact, sinking itself through the distribution of free content on the web (How to Sink a Newspaper)? The “if you can get it free on the web, why get the paper” mindset is driving loss in circulation, loss in advertising revenue, the death spiral of the news industry. The answer then, get it off the web, don’t give it all away, bring back/force the return of value to the print product and its content.

I’d love your take on this. You may have answered before. If so, please point me in the right direction.

The short answer: Mr. Hussman appears to be living in the past, and his idea is impractical.

Longer answer: It should be obvious by now that reading habits — especially among younger people but certainly not limited to them — lead away from print. I have 2 daughters, and I just can’t imagine them ever reading a print edition. It won’t happen, and no amount of newspaper industry marketing is going to convince the younger generation that reading dated news on a dead-tree edition is the way to go.

The Apple iPhone, I think, points out the inevitable doom for print newspapers. While reading news on a desktop PC or laptop isn’t always practical — we don’t carry our laptops everywhere we go — at the point that most people are carrying around phones as capable as (or more so than) the iPhone, that will be our source of continuously updated news, along with more traditional computing devices like the laptop. A printed newspaper with news that’s 12-24 hours old is just pathetic by comparison.

The only hope for print is that lots of older people retain the habit, and they’ll keep printed newspapers alive for a while longer.

So, newspapers have to present their product (news coverage) online and to mobile devices — and of course make money from that to support the news-gathering operation.

Can they charge for it? Good luck with that. Only if they have content that’s truly unique and valuable is that going to work. Putting all of a newspaper’s content behind a pay wall is just nuts, unless everything in your paper fits the description of the previous sentence. NYTimes.com is a good example of what may be possible for some newspapers: It charges for a select slice of premium content, like its best op-ed columnists. The Times’ bet is that its columnists are so good and so much better than what else is available for free online that a decent segment of the online population will pay for that.

There’s simply too much available online that can substitute for what a newspaper produces. If I cancelled my subscription to my local paper and ignored its website (pretending that it was behind a pay wall), the only thing that would be difficult to find for free online is good local news coverage. I’d still easily find wire-service stories from my community; I’d find stories about Boulder (where I live) from other news organizations that don’t charge; I’d find news from “placebloggers” who cover my city or slices of it; and I’d use Outside.in as a view of all the stuff that various organizations and individuals are producing about Boulder. I’d also find local classifieds in abundance (Craigslist), as well as local advertising and discount deals on a variety of websites.

Yes, my local paper does a great job of covering local news and issues. Maybe as an old guy, I’m still willing to pay for that. But the younger generation? With pretty-darn-good free alternatives, I don’t see them being motivated to pay.

Should the newspaper industry band together and stop posting its content for free access? 1) That’ll never happen; the industry is divided, and there’s just no way that publishers will en masse do that. 2) Those few who may try it may as well resign themselves to a future of slow decline, as traditional newspaper readers die off. Because they will be removing themselves from opportunity to take advantage of what the Internet offers — an amazingly efficient vehicle for reaching audiences.

Viewpoints like Mr. Hussman’s suggest that Google is the enemy, because people use it to find whatever it is they want — for free. Google should be taken advantage of. People use Google, et al to seek out what newspapers have (among other things!). So newspapers need to figure out how to monetize that gift. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as slapping a price tag on the news. When the new competition is offering a price of zero, there’s no motivation to pay.

I hope the newspaper industry isn’t taking Hussman’s suggestions seriously.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!