Journalism Fights for its Life


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Let's not pull any punches: It's been a horrible year for newspapers. We've watched as one newspaper after another has closed down or gone to a limited online-only model. Newspapers are suddenly frantic to find a way to make money online, as though the commercial web is something that came along last month instead of 15 years ago.

In fact-with almost irrational exuberance-many papers assert that they plan to make money online by placing some or all of their content behind pay walls, even when experts doubt it will be that simple and would require a value-add that many newspapers lack.

However, it is good to see that newspapers have at least decided to put on the gloves and fight. There have been many approaches suggested, but can any of these models work? Let's explore a few and consider their viability.

Membership has its privileges: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made headlines of its own in September when it announced it was building a members-only access program it dubbed PG+. It plans to provide unique content from columnists and journalists, the ability for participants to add their own content, online access to journalists, and discounts to Pittsburgh-area restaurants and events. Is it enough to make people pay? Is good local content enough to draw people in?

Screw the World Wide Web: In June, the Niemen Journalism Lab blog reported about a different approach taken by Rhode Island's Newport Daily News. Instead of embracing the web, the paper decided to charge a hefty subscription rate to gain access to the paper's content online: $345 a year. However, home delivery of the 12,000-circulation daily will only cost you $145 a year. To get both print and online, it's $245. Why charge more to get news only online, you ask? The paper hopes to drive sales of its print property by discouraging people from relying solely on web-based news. It's an idea that might work at the local level, where people really want to know what's going on in the neighborhood and don't have myriad online alternatives.

Let the community pay for investigative journalism: Spot.us, a San Francisco startup funded by Knight Ridder, hopes to revitalize local investigative journalism through community funding. Locals suggest news stories that matter to them. Other citizens help fund the project, and when there is enough money, the program hires a professional journalist to investigate the issue and write a story. It's an interesting approach, but it's unclear if it will fill the hole left by newspapers with trained staffs watching and following key local issues.

Sell content through ebook readers: With the phenomenal popularity of the Amazon Kindle, some think it could be a profitable delivery outlet for newspapers and magazines. However, rumors abound that Time, Inc. may release its very own e-reader in which it will offer content from Time, Inc. publications (also possibly partnering with other magazines to offer bundles of content through the device). This is an interesting approach and one that has a lot of potential, especially if Time gives away its e-reader or offers it at a very low price. The question still remains how the company would make money beyond subscriptions and if e-readers provide a viable advertising outlet.

A little bit free, then you buy the rest: The Financial Times of London lets you have 10 free views per month. You can read it or you can link to the articles. But after you pass 10 views in a single month, you're asked to subscribe to the paper. This approach may well work for a publication such as the Financial Times, which offers unique, niche content. But I'm skeptical whether it could work for more general news, which is available for free from so many sources on the web.

This is just a sampling of the models being tested by the stumbling-but still swinging-journalism business. However, it's unclear if any of these will work or if the market is willing to pay (or pay to support) journalism at all.

In fact, recent survey results conflict on whether charging for online content will ever really work-with some concluding that it is doomed to failure and others suggesting people could be willing to pay for specialized content such as business and sports (a contention I could support). Regardless, content providers have no choice but to believe there is a market for their content somewhere and that at least some of these new models will get this industry off the ropes and on the road to recovery.