8.3 Experiments by Traditional Media

Although I’m less optimistic about traditional news organizations’ willingness or ability to change, I definitely don’t want to write them off entirely. Not only are they needed, when they do their job well, but most are still making operating profits. Moreover, the traditional media have only just begun to experiment themselves. And the ones that are experimenting are doing wondrous things; we talk about many of them on Mediactive.com. The industry experiments have mostly tended to be on the journalistic side, however. The business innovation? Not so much. Even here, though, there are glimmers of ideas, mostly due to the sheer panic in executive suites.

At the end of 2009, for example, media company executives were falling all over themselves to assert their determination to start charging for what they were allegedly giving away. (Never mind that they’d been essentially giving it away for decades, as noted in Chapter 1.) My reaction: Heck yes, give it a try. As I write this, the New York Times appears to be on the verge of putting up a “pay wall,” as people call this kind of venture.

I doubt pay walls will work, in most cases. There’s too much content available for no charge, and too little added value evident in what the news organizations say they want audiences to pay for. But there’s plenty of evidence that people will pay for specialized content that they believe they need. I subscribe to the online editions of the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports, for example, and as long as their subscription rates are modest I’ll keep doing so. Magazines and some newspapers are working on a format and billing system, possibly tied to tablet devices. I wish them well.

In early 2009, I tried stirring the pot a bit, with a suggestion that a few top news organizations could charge for what they produce if they merged outright. In a post on the blog BoingBoing, I asked:

What would happen if some top English language journalism organizations simply merged and started charging for their breaking news and commentary about policy, economics and other national/international topics? That is, what if they were to combine for critical mass and keep most of their journalism off the public Internet for a few days after publication but then make the archives freely available?

My list of top organizations included the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, Washington Monthly, and The New Yorker.

“I don’t know the combined annual newsroom cost of these organizations, but I’d be surprised if it was even $750 million,” I said. “Let’s go wild and call it $1 billion, so we can pay for lawyers, Web developers, accountants, and a bunch of other folks who’d need to be part of the operation.” The merged enterprise could generate much more than that with 2 million subscribers paying a modest $10 a week rate.

Naturally, I got lots of pushback on this idea. But I do know this: I’d pay, gladly, for such a product.

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