The Noisy Channel

 

Journalism Is Not Like Craigslist

May 29th, 2009 · 7 Comments · General

In response to a meeting sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America about “Models to Monetize Content” (i.e., how to charge for online news), Scott Rosenberg writes that charging for articles could hobble the future of journalism.

His main argument is an appeal to analogy: the classifieds business:

In at least one area, the newspaper web sites of the 90s didn’t give away the store…But the greatest success of all came in the unlikely form of Craigslist, a community-based enterprise led by a shy programmer who offered classifieds not as a profit-making enterprise but (in all but a tiny subset of categories) as a free service. As a result, newspapers’ classified businesses today have been devastated.

It’s a sobering point: staying the course is not always the best strategy, and Craigslist is certainly a case study in disruptive innovation. As a user, I find the Craiglist user experience awful. But it turns out that price (to sellers) often trumps user experience–though I would note that, at least in New York City, many people still pay to have their apartments listed in the New York Times real estate section.

But journalism is very different from the classifieds market. Classifieds are the the canonical example of a peer-to-peer business. You hardly need to consider a quasi-altruistic endeavor like Craigslist–consider what eBay did to the classifieds market by reducing its friction. Sellers and buyers are naturally incented to participate, so it’s just a matter of supplying the right infrastructure and then taking enough of a cut to sustain that infrastructure and, in the case of eBay or other for-profit market places, a bit more than that to make a profit.

I’d like to see someone explain how free online journalism is supposed to work that way. Sure, there are content producers and consumers, but these roles aren’t quite like sellers and buyers if a world where no one pays for content. Of course the status quo is the ad-supported model, where what is being sold for money is the readers’ attention, rather than the content itself. But the advocates of this model might want to remember that free, ad-supported print media has existed far longer than the internet. I believe the technical term for such a publications is “rags”. Not exactly “change” I can believe in.

I’m realistic that it will be very hard for newspapers to put the free content genie back in the bottle. But I cringe when I hear pontification against their even trying to do so. I think they belatedly recognize their mistake, and are desperately trying for a do-over.

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason Adams // May 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Let’s say for a moment that newspapers are somehow able to return to a subscription or pay-per-view type service. I suspect that bloggers will become the carriers of this information. Bloggers who can make some small amount of money through ads will disseminate news information they subscribe to (while sticking to fair use, presumably) to people who don’t want to pay for something they previously got for free. Is that possibility preposterous or won’t we just be back at square one? It seems to me this ship has sailed one way or another and there’s no going back..

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // May 29, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    So that’s the interesting question: is the trickle that bloggers could recycle through fair use a sufficient substitute for the publications themselves? If so, then I’d say that most newspapers should just kill themselves now, at least until their diminished numbers raise the scarcity of their information, thus allowing them to charge more.

    And are bloggers ready to start paying for information, incurring costs they need to recoup through advertising? If so, then newspapers should probably be able to cut out the middleman and support a healthy ad-supported model themselves. The problem, as I understand it now, is that the ad money simply isn’t enough to support the current infrastructure. Something has to give.

  • 3 Scott Rosenberg // May 29, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Web ad money doesn’t support the current infrastructure because that infrastructure was built on monopoly profits. The monopoly’s gone. The newspapers just haven’t accepted that fact.

    Yes, classifieds are a peer-to-peer business. Journalism on the web, too, incorporates more of the nature of peer-to-peer behavior than it could possibly have offline.

    A decade-and-a-half of Web history demonstrates the folly of charging for all but the most specialized content in an environment where content is so abundant. I think it’s tiresome to rehash that argument. Good luck to the publications who haven’t learned the lesson.

    My point was rather to express some sadness that, if newspapers turn en masse to a gated model, they will be opting out of having much influence on the forms that news will take on the Web in future. And that would be a shame, because the experiences of people who labored in newspaper newsrooms (as I did for a decade) is valuable and can help speed up the improvement of news online.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // May 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I’ll concede the monopoly profits point–at least there’s no longer a meaningful concept of regional monopoly. Though I wonder how much of the abundance of content on the web is based on a few funded sources. For example, what would happen if you knocked out the major wire services and leading newspapers? How much of the rest is derivative?

    In any case, I’m less persuaded that the relationship between citizen journalists and readers (which is what I understand as peer-to-peer journalism) is like that between sellers and buyers. For example, my blogging is an example of someone participating in this peer-to-peer journalism ecosystem. But I’m more an advocate / activist than a reporter. I’m beholden to my own agenda, not to my readers (though my desire to have readers may temper my excesses). Nonetheless, if I were primarily accountable to my readers, I’d expect them to pay me. As it is, I “work” for free, but on my own terms. That’s fun, but not really what I think of as journalism.

  • 5 Eric Thayer // May 29, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    I’m curious how good bloggers can fill the good investigative journalist’s ability to ferret out information that is concealed because the entities under investigation do not want the information publicly known. What would be the “new media” venue for investigative journalists should newspapers die off? Could they support themselves between stories? Could a Woodward and Bernstein exist in the new media environment?

  • 6 dinesh vadhia // Jun 1, 2009 at 4:26 am

    The mainstream publishing industry needs something similar to the cable industry model for TV. A monthly subscription would give the subscriber access to a plethora of online properties from different publishers. The publishers can then cease giving access to the search engine crawlers and create a walled garden which they as an industry can control. In essence, take back control of the distribution of their publications. Advertisers would be happy too. Would it work? Yes, if all the key publishers set aside their egos and worked together. Would consumers pay a subscription fee? Many would as mainstream publishers do provide a valuable service but they would also get access to publications from multiple publishers included in the subscription fee.

    Dinesh

  • 7 Daniel Tunkelang // Jun 1, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I think that’s what the NAA may be pushing for, but doing so may run afoul of anti-trust law. That’s what some of their members are lobbying for anti-trust exemption.

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