The comments thread on my post about Tim Rutten's Los Angeles Times column about antitrust and newspapers is plenty lively. When my reply to some of the letter writers went past 2,000 words, I decided to make it its own post.
Chris Rywalt: The problem is this: No one can figure out how to pay for anything besides running ads.
I believe that's a fixable failure. I think the answers are out there. And I think the number of people working on the problem has been small relative to the whole Web. A whole lot of sites have tried to make it on advertising alone, or advertising mostly, and it's only in this downturn that it seems to be dawning on a lot of people: It's never going to work.
Ads in magazines and newspapers have survived because no one can be sure how well they're working. Ads online can be tracked quite closely and what we've seen there is advertising doesn't actually work.
I wonder about this. Totally outside my area of expertise, but: Is it true? What's the definition of "working"? It seems to me the "original sin," to borrow a term the newspaper people throw around, of online advertising was to measure things in click-throughs. Is that an accurate measure of success? How many people "click through" on offline ads? That is, call the 800 number, use the coupon, whatever. Does online advertising not work, somehow, for the things offline advertising works for? Brand building, name recognition, product positioning, etc. Are there studies about this?
I don't think it's true that "Ads in magazines and newspapers have survived because no one can be sure how well they're working." Advertisers track the success of their campaigns. Do they do the same with online advertising or do they just pay for click-throughs? I'm really asking.
We've all tried subscriptions and ads but basically the only really sustainable model for paying for online content is subsidy.
I believe it's too early in the game to say that.
This problem hasn't been solved yet and it's been fifteen years.
I think 15 years is not much, especially because, as you said, at the beginning, and that's measured in years not months, making things pay wasn't a high priority for a large percentage of Web sites. I know there have been people and companies out there working on this problem since the mid-'90s. Salon is among them. But I would say that, as an industry, the journalism business has only been wrestling with it in a serious way for less than five years. Maybe less than three.
Dave Cullen: Yes, it's silly to suggest that newspapers are the ONLY form of journalism, but I don't think that's what he's really arguing. He's saying it's a crucial component of journalism in our current system, and there's nothing on the horizon to replace it, so we'll be screwed without it. He's right.
I really don't think he is.
There are a lot of things on the horizon. Local news Web sites and blogs are springing up all over the country. Ann Arbor's last newspaper just closed and several Web sites, including one run by the newspaper's publisher, are battling for supremacy there, creating an interesting laboratory.
Talking Points Memo, the U.K. Guardian and others are doing difficult investigative reporting, often crowd-sourced. Spot.Us and others are experimenting with creative new ways to fund reporting. New technologies are giving sources more ways to communicate with the public and giving the public eyes and ears in places they've never had them before.
Is any of it ready for prime time? Will any of it last? Shoot, I don't know. But there's a lot of stuff bubbling up around here, a lively ecosystem that will, I'm confident, evolve into the next generation of journalism -- one that will also include newspapers, TV, radio and maybe something else we don't even know about yet.
From reading the comments on this blog, I think a lot of people think I'm a cockeyed optimist, a utopian, that I think every new idea I hear about is The Supreme Answer and I'm ready to dump newspapers and everyone who works at them into the sea. I'm not.
I actually think we're right at the beginning of a period of utter chaos. The old model is breaking down and the new model isn't ready to replace it. To quote Clay Shirky from his essay "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable": "That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place."
It very well might suck, what's coming up. There will be subjects and geographical areas that go underreported, corruption that goes un-watchdogged. But I think we have to let it play out or we'll never get where we're going. If we artificially prop up the dominant but dying form, newspapers, we'll choke off the innovation and growth that's going on everywhere else.
And then when newspapers die anyway, as many of them inevitably will because the conditions that made their business model possible no longer exist, there will have been nothing growing in their shadows. We'll have a longer, more painful period of chaos.
Yes, the corporations pushing this are big corps and have a vested interest too, and are not doing it just for the public good. But it's a logical fallacy to suggest that because they have a vested interest, they can't also share the public interest. Here, the two coincide.
I agree it's a logical fallacy to say that because they have a vested interest, they can't also share the public interest. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to say that they don't also share the public interest.
The only question I have is whether it's ten years too late, and whether it can actually work.
Imagine where we'd be if Congress had legislated against online innovation 10 years ago. And I'm very confident that I can answer that last question: No.
Lynne K ... but there's also a lot of crap masquerading as premium. You work for [Salon], which is good, but perhaps you've been breathing your rarified air for too long; you might not understand that there are other bad bloggers out there purporting to be good bloggers.
I understand, but so what? There are a lot of bad newspaper writers too. Bad newspapers. Ninety percent of everything is crap. None of it disqualifies the good stuff.
There should be a measure by which people can trust what they read online and newspapers offer that.
Really? How were they in the runup to the Iraq War? How was Jayson Blair for you?
You're the measure. You figure out, over time, along with fellow readers, who you can trust and who you can't. I don't agree with this idea that you can trust something in the newspaper because it's in the newspaper and you can't trust what's in, say, blogs because they're not in the newspaper. If a blogger -- or a newspaper writer -- is not trustworthy, the audience will let you know. Others will write about him or her, commenters will point out the inconsistencies or half-truths.
And it's THEIR news, and I think most people agree that stealing is bad.
It's not their news, but it's their writing about THE news, and yes, stealing is bad. There are laws against it.
Maybe the anti-trust laws need tweaking. I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. But you're using the word "collude" like the anti-health care nuts are using "death panels" -- as a scare tactic.
Someone else pointed this out, but that's not fair. Death panels are made-up things, lies, invented to scare people into a political position. "Collude" is the word Rutten himself used, accurately. Collusion is the very thing that antitrust laws were designed to stop.
Tony Wang: You're not killing freedom of the press if you say that readers have to pay for the content.
Oh, certainly not! Charge away. No problem. If you can get people to pay for your content, you go. What we're talking about here is suspending antitrust law so newspapers can form a cartel, giving them an unfair and artificial advantage over their competition, which is the rest of "the press." That's a clear hindrance on freedom of the press.
And one of Murdoch's properties, the Wall Street Journal, has been doing it right for a long time.
Yay, Wall Street Journal. It didn't need Congress to suspend antitrust law, did it. What the Wall Street Journal does right is it has content that is distinct enough that people are willing to pay for it. It's a niche, specialty paper, and its niche is large corporations and other people with a lot of money. Good niche.
John Steiner: Now, in the Internet era, what constitutes the press is nebulous because people who act as reporters may not work for a traditional news organization nor even get directly paid for their work. So the question that arises is what is the specific definition of the press?
I don't find this nebulous at all. The press is any form of publishing. You don't have to be part of a traditional news organization or get paid for your work to enjoy freedom of the press. Who would you exclude from "freedom of the press," and why? Who would you exclude from "freedom of speech"?
Jeremiah Horrigan: Some thoughts from a life-long news hound and still-employed newspaper reporter: ...
Rutten's proposal strikes me as dicey. It has the taste of panic and looks backwards for its questionable comforts. If he sounds desperate -- and I think he does -- I'm glad he's at least standing up for newspapers, however benighted his proposal may be. In fact, I would say that rather than smugly predicting newspapers' demise, the presumptive "alternatives" to newspapers could use a dose of desperation as well.
The country's cadres of "citizen journalists" have yet to produce anything comparable to what I've outlined above. Blogging has not been able to professionalize itself to any appreciable extent.
I think there's plenty of desperation out there. And I'll refer to my comments above about the quality of newspaper alternatives. The failure of, for want of a more accurate word, the blogosphere, to match 200 years of newspaper achievement in less than a decade is not adequate reason to legislate against it. If the citizen journalists and the blogs aren't real alternatives to newspapers, why do newspapers have to go running to Congress? Why not just compete?
I'm betting that when the paywalls start dropping, people will be willing to pay for careful, professional online reporting and writing, just as they have long been willing to pay for the morning paper.
We disagree there. People paid for the morning paper because there were no realistic alternatives. Now there are thousands. And isn't it interesting that newspapers are doing a lot more talking about paywalls than building them? But we'll see together.
John Steiner: The other issue that citizen reporters and bloggers lack is press credentialing. There are simply some stories that a citizen reporter/blogger doesn't have access to without a press badge. That also will need to be addressed in the future and I am not sure how it will be resolved, especially if the newspapers continue to close and there are less options for obtaining news.
Bureaucratic detail for the most part, don't you think? If the main thing standing in the way of the Future of Journalism were a bunch of flacks having to consider credentials on a case-by-case basis instead of just automatically saying yes to newspaper, TV and radio reporters and no to everyone else, we'd have this thing licked.