"The current print formula of raising newsstand and subscription prices while reducing the quality of the product is having a quite predictable effect on circulation," he writes. "Readers can tell the difference, and they're walking away. So now you want to put a price on a so-so online product that heretofore has been free and can largely be duplicated elsewhere? Good luck with that."
Potts talks about an idea that often gets kind of ignored in the conversation about how news organizations are going to get people to pay for their product: "To charge readers for access," he writes, "you've got to provide them with value for their money."
Stop the presses!
There's nothing magical about this whole Internet business. It has some unique characteristics just like any other industry, but the fundamental laws apply: If you want people to pay for something, you've got to give them a good product at a price they're willing to pay.
I feel like I say this every five minutes in Future of Journalism nerdland, but: Look at iTunes. The music business had convinced itself that because of the Internet and mp3's and file sharing nobody would ever pay for music again, unless the industry got the laws changed and sued all its customers to smithereens.
Then iTunes came along. It wasn't a brilliant technical innovation. It was just a good product at a reasonable price. Sure, the amoral, thieving, pirating music public said, we'll pay 99 cents for a song.
With iTunes, finding the song you wanted and downloading it became quick and easy, and you knew the quality would be good. The marginal difference between that and doing the same thing in the wild world of unauthorized file sharing was worth 99 cents to a whole lot of people.
The sad fact about "almost all news organizations" is that they don't provide the same kind of value. Back to Potts:
"But wait, you say. Newspapers are still full of great reporters and storytellers and photographers who can provide coverage of city hall and cops and local events and all sorts of important issues like nobody else. Yeah, they are (well, maybe not after all the buyouts and layoffs). But is that work sufficiently unique and valuable that significant numbers of people will pay for it? Probably not. Sorry. It's just not enough."
That is, for the vast, crashing majority of people, the marginal difference between the very best general news coverage and totally mediocre coverage isn't worth a dime. They'll pay for specialized or niche information because there's so much less of it. The news? There's a lot.
In fact, there's too much. That's why people look to aggregators, such as Google News, which the journalism industry is busy attacking because it thinks Google's making money by selling advertising against the valuable, unpaid-for work of journalists.
What's really happening: Google is doing the valuable work, providing something worthwhile by aggregating and making some sense out of the massive flow of news and information.
The news consumer wants to know what President Obama said, what happened in the stock market, who won the Twins game. If she can get that information in prose that walks in beauty like the night, she'll take it. But if not, there are plenty of us hacks out here to serve it up like mashed potatoes. And there's Google News to point the consumer to it.
Every news business executive who huffs and puffs about how the people are just going to have to buckle down and pay for content, who marches up Capitol Hill to try to get subsidies or laws enacted to save this industry so vital to our democracy, who warns the citizenry that without a watchdog fourth estate corruption will run wild, is an executive whose time would be better spent trying to figure out how to give people value for their money.