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!