Newspapers’ ‘Original Sin’ will be shown to be BS

By Steve Outing

In American Journalism Review, long-time newspaper analyst John Morton yet again has trotted out the tired argument that the newspaper industry made a colossal mistake years ago by giving its news away free on the web.

“So what should the nation’s dailies have done to combat the Internet onslaught? Erecting paywalls to protect their most valuable resource – the information they gather – is obvious.”

(There’s more nuance in Morton’s argument, but read it yourself; I won’t waste your time repeating his other points.)

This has become a political argument within the media world . It reminds me of the politics of climate change:

  • Climate-change debate:
    • Vast majority of scientists believe humankind is adversely affecting climate and that we are headed toward catastrophe, and must act quickly to implement solutions.
    • Vocal minority of entrenched interests (nearly all non-scientists) makes so much noise arguing that climate change is a myth that our political system is paralyzed and little progress is made toward changing public policy to support finding solutions.
    • We well may end up discovering that climate change is “real” when its effects are so detrimental that the deniers finally have to shut up.
  • Newspapers’ mistake was free content on the web debate:
    • Most experts in digital media recognize that the web is different than “old media” (especially newspapers) and charging for commodity news content is fool-hardy when the environmental factors include a massive number of competitors and potential competitors, enabled by a very low barrier to entry. In other words, putting up newspaper-website paywalls early would have enabled a wave of online-only news entities that probably would have killed many more metro newspapers by now than has been the case.
    • Powerful and vocal old-media players like Rupert Murdoch have amped up the volume on a disproved notion (“newspapers should have charged all along for news on the web”), and a modest but growing number of old-media publishers now are trying paywalls online. This is happening despite numerous failures by metro newspapers trying web paywalls in the past, from the web’s earliest days to recent years (remember “TimesSelect”?).
    • My expectation is that we’ll find out soon enough that paywalls on general news by newspaper websites truly don’t work (except perhaps in some non-competitive small markets), but the result of some following Murdoch’s lead will be the death of more metro dailies.

Don’t mistake this for a “news wants to be free” screed. The right business model for news online very well may include as a component people paying for some content or services, and there are many possibilities other than Murdoch’s “hard paywall” as demonstrated by The Times/Sunday Times.

But resurrecting the “Original Sin” argument tends to get news people thinking in black-and-white, which won’t solve the problem.

I’m sticking to my predictions. Climate change will prove out. Newspaper website paywalls will not be the solution that saves old-media news organizations.

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!

4 Responses to "Newspapers’ ‘Original Sin’ will be shown to be BS"

  1. Mark Potts
    Mark Potts 6 years ago .Reply

    Thanks for this, Steve. The “original sin” theory is ridiculous and just plain wrong. Those of us who were there in the early days of news on the Web know that many newspapers tried very hard to charge for online access to content–indeed, many did charge–but were thwarted by low numbers of potential customers, rudimentary technology, audience rejection and just being too early to the party.

    The suggestion that not charging for Web content was born of an “information wants to be free” mentality is even more wrong–that’s NOT an argument that was made by anybody in the news business, believe me.

    The “original sin” theory is simply an invention of people who weren’t paying attention 15-20 years ago. In the years since, a plethora of free news alternatives has made charging for content pretty much a losing proposition, except in certain high-value, specialized instances, as you suggest. But it’s just wrong to suggest that paid models weren’t tried. For any number of reasons (and with a couple exceptions, like WSJ.com), they just didn’t work.

  2. Derek Scruggs
    Derek Scruggs 6 years ago .Reply

    Their original sin is that they ignored Craigslist. And later Groupon. The collapse of newspapers has very little to do with content and very much to do with ignorance of new business models.

  3. Bill Garber
    Bill Garber 6 years ago .Reply

    Steve, (and Mark …)

    What do you make of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette? As I recall, it is the only metro daily that maintains its high print market-penetration due to no sub, no online access from the start.

    Oh, and this is the same outfit the put a Gannet daily competitor out of business.

    Morton is right.

    There is just no money in being fascinated with free online newspapers. Give it away and get rich doesn’t work anywhere on the web, why does a newspaper imagine it is exempt from these economic realities.

    I certainly agree with your three points re newspapers and the web, however.

    And your three points don’t make online newspapers any money either, of course.

    The Democrat-Gazette created scarcity.

    Free online newspapers commoditize their so-called ‘content’ (how demeaning can we make journalism?!). Scarcity is the exclusive path to revenue. Highly desirable scarcity is the path to old-school newspaper-level profits.

    When the stuff we used to fill in around the ads is widely available for free and in more convenient forms (smart phones, laptops, even old desktops at work) who wants to continue having to haul several pounds of newsprint to the curb every week?

    And newspapers aren’t television, where viewership drops and spots increase in price. Crazy, isn’t it!

    To say paid models don’t work is simply not true. Zagat uses them to outrageous profits. Pay models just don’t work for experiences that are easily duplicated for free or lower cost elsewhere.

    Newspaper have work to do to create experiences their (former?) readers will pay for. There is no write-the-check solution like buying a massive printing press out there on the web.

    A good many newspaper chains or groups were created by accountants, back in the day when the real challenge in publishing was counting the money. It is no wonder newspapers didn’t figure out how to make money on the web.

    It is likely that this will all work out in the end, probably starting in small communities across the land. And I’m pretty sure the revenue will be largely from … subscriptions.

    Of course, my opinion is no more inherently true than yours. However I am defining a problem the solution of will create new and profitable revenue streams:

    What kinds of experiences will people be willing to pay for online, experiences that leverage a newspaper’s (admittedly dwindling) relationships with its readers?

    I happen to believe that the demeaned Murdoch is going to create an amazing experience with The Daily, and at 99 cents per week will create an embarrassment of riches. In 36 months The Daily will be making more profits than USA Today, or any of today’s bankrupt or non-bankrupt metro dailies. And with a little adaption, it is likely he’ll open up shop in the top 100 markets in the US across years three-five of The Daily’s existence.

    Let’s have another conversation in a few years. Good times are ahead … :)

  4. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 6 years ago .Reply

    To my recollection, exactly NO ONE has said that pay walls (or, preferably, online subscriptions) by themselves would save the industry. That would be silly. The arguments have always been more nuanced — some sort of subscription model coupled with many other changes, most still unknown, will transform us over time. There are good signs beginning to show themselves — second-half revenue climbed year-over-year for the first time in nearly three years in 2010, for example.

    Creating false dichotomies doesn’t move the debate forward. Pay walls have never been seen as the panacea — rather, dishing out for free online the same content people gladly pay for when it’s on dead trees was clearly and simply the wrong way to begin this transition.

    Roger Plothow
    Editor and Publisher
    Post Register
    Idaho Falls, Idaho

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