Good and Bad News

Today in Arizona, pack mules will deliver mail to the Havasupai tribe. Their village, Supai, clings to the side of the Grand Canyon, and—as has been the case for a century—mules still provide the most efficient means of delivering the mail. This isn’t to imply that the Havasupai don’t get email. They are certainly online, as many of the packages delivered to them are products purchased through the web.

I read about the Havasupai in a magazine called Good. I took the print issue out to the hammock and leisurely flipped through the pages, pausing to read random snippets before this article fully captured my attention. Yes, I could have read the issue online, even on the hammock, given my laptop and Wi-Fi. Online, I could have read the articles that got the most good votes first and skipped the less-good ones. I could have clicked through to learn more about authors, even hitting their individual websites. Without a doubt, there’s more to Good online, but not only did I choose to read the issue in print, I’ll pass it along that way, too.

Then again, that’s only handy for the few people I’ll actually see. So I’ll head online after all, and shoot links out to a couple of faraway folks. Who knows, maybe some of them will end up subscribing, though it isn’t easy to say who might. The magazine defines its demographics differently than most: “We see a growing number of people tied together not by age, career, background, or circumstance, but by a shared interest. This revolves around a passion for potential mixed with fierce pragmatism and creative engagement.”

This magazine is not exactly special interest or general interest. It is both, ultimately reliant on communal interest. Yet despite its emphasis on community, the lone-reader print magazine is core to its model—and its philanthropy. All subscription revenue is donated to charity. Rather than using subscriptions to defray costs (which is all it does for most advertising-reliant print publications), the publisher says that, in addition to its feel-good nature, this model also creates a viral effect that has resulted in the company spending half of what it traditionally costs to acquire subscribers.

In addition to print, the publisher produces films, multimedia content, and events. In other words, since inception it has approached content creation from multiple angles. It remains to be seen if Good’s publishing model will pan out, but it is exciting (as print media struggles) that new magazines are launching and that innovative cross-publishing models and subscription tactics are being explored.

New kids aren’t the only ones playing with mixed models—or who are mixed-up about models—though. This year has seen shifts made to and from paid models by venerated news publications Financial Times and The New York Times, among others. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “The State of the News Media 2007” report, “On Madison Avenue, talk has turned to whether the business model that has financed the news for more than a century—product advertising—still fits the way people consume media.”

The report found that almost every media sector is losing popularity and that even the number of people who seek news online has stopped growing. However, this is not to suggest that people are consuming less information, rather that their activities are spread out across evermore media options, diluting the impact of each.

To compound the issue, “The State of the News Media 2007” found that in addition to costing less than its print counterpart, advertising simply doesn’t work the same way online; looking for information about products is an activity in itself, not a byproduct of consuming news, for example. The report’s authors predicted that the industry is at least a decade away from online business contributing to even half of journalistic revenue. As such, the question can’t be as simply put as “free or fee?”

However, for now at least, the answer may not actually be all that different from most print publishing models: maintaining a precarious balance of subscriptions and advertising, as well as continued experimentation and diversification to perfect the mix.

Yet while publishers somehow get users to pay for online content, charging them directly may not be the way. The report proposed exploring scenarios in which the consumer isn’t charged directly. Instead, news providers, possibly as consortiums, could charge internet providers and aggregators licensing fees for content. These fees would likely add to the bills consumers pay for internet access.

“The notion that the internet is free is already false,” according to “The State of the News Media 2007.” “Those who report the news just aren’t sharing in the fees.” People are consuming more media—in old ways as well as new. We just have to figure out how to continue to make it (and them) pay.