You wouldn't know it to hear publishers griping, but newspapers have a long history of giving away content -- or at least selling it on the cheap. That didn't change with the internet; what's really changed is the advertising model.
Think about how newspapers were sold in the 20th century. The newsstand cost was actually very cheap, perhaps 25 cents a copy -- and sometimes it was free -- so the subscription revenue was never much to speak of.
These days the surviving newspapers and magazines are up against bloggers and just about anyone with an internet connection when it comes to grabbing readers. But don't let publishers fool you into thinking they aren't used to competitors. For decades, every major city had multiple papers competing for readers and advertisers. There was only so much news, and everyone had reporters covering the same beats, so each paper ran remarkably similar content.
So if the idea of competition isn't new, and selling the news for a very low price isn't anything new either, then why are Rupert Murdoch and his contemporaries complaining about the shifting landscape? Well, it's all about the ad model.
As the web took off in the late 1990s, it added a new element of competition -- one that had an even greater impact on newspaper and magazine publishing than the TV had when it was introduced decades before. That's because the internet began competing with publishers for lucrative ad dollars. Even with the advent of television, newspapers and magazines were able to charge a pretty penny for their ads and rake in the dough (in spite of the high costs of doing business). Local businesses still turned to local publications to advertise their goods and -- perhaps more importantly -- their sales.
One of the first stakes in the heart of print journalism was the rise of craigslist, a free alternative to newspaper classifieds. Up until craigslist came along, newspapers made substantial profits from the classified ads, and those numbers increased in the 1990s as personals took off. And instead of trying to beat craigslist at its own game, newspapers just laid down and watched classified ad revenue die.
I interviewed David Cohn, founder of Spot.us, for an article in EContent back in October 2009. The following is an excerpt from the article with Cohn's point of view: "[W]hile Google might have stemmed from the work of a couple of brilliant Stanford University students, craigslist didn't require a high level of technological innovation. 'craigslist was not a work of genius. Any newspaper could have done that. Blaming craigslist is like blaming a competitor for beating you.'"
The other major disruption for newspapers was the flow of display ad dollars from print to online. Not only was online cheaper for advertisers, it gave them the ability to target ads very specifically and to measure the success of those ads -- something that remains, for the most part, impossible with print ads without expensive focus groups.
Publishers couldn't have controlled the ad market, but they could have reacted more quickly to the changing marketplace; however, they arrogantly stood by their 20th-century model. Why? Because as with most disrupted industries, they didn't realize what was happening until it was much too late to do anything.
And those that did react still saw the web (and now the mobile market) not as a new place to publish but as a secondary supplement to the print product. What they failed to see was that this world of buildings, printing presses, and delivery trucks was crumbling before their eyes because the ad money was no longer there to support the print infrastructure.
Free content online has never really been the problem. As we've seen time and again, people still want reliable sources and good reporting, but they still don't want to pay very much for it. In short, they want the advertisers to pay for it, as they always have.
The trouble is that the numbers aren't quite the same as they used to be, and it's harder to maintain a quality print product while supporting the website. That's the real reason print publications are failing in large numbers. The competition isn't to blame; it's a failure to adapt that's killing off print news.