In the news business, the interplay between the Internet, mobile devices, television and print is at a precipitous crossroads where everything is changing so fast no one truly knows what the future will hold. It’s both exciting and scary for those of us who make our living amidst all this back and forth, and I’m asked at least once daily where it’s all going and what it means for our business. All the lines are blurring, and what’s old school and what’s new and exciting are bumping into each other.
Take for instance a move by our regional daily newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. This Sunday, the newspaper started a three-part series on Evergreen Packaging, formerly known as Blue Ridge Paper and prior to that Champion International. The story about the Canton mill is interesting enough, but no new ground is being plowed with the reporting.
What is most interesting is that the story ran as a “print exclusive.” That means the local daily and its owner, Gannett — the world’s largest newspaper company — decided to offer the story only to readers of the paper’s print edition.
Wow. That is news, especially if it represents a broader move by Gannett and, perhaps, other papers to take back their content. The Asheville paper, as with most newspapers in this country, has been giving away all its content on the Web for many years.
In the print newspaper business, there is an emerging consensus that we all committed a potentially fatal mistake around 10 years back. It seems longer ago now, but that was when there was an industry-wide move to put everything on the Internet and figure out later how to make money from it. Now, it’s a decade later and most newspapers still have not figured out how to turn a profit from Web sites, where the fruit of all of their news gathering is mostly given away, and the only money comes from a few banner ads and pop-ups.
A week ago, newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch — who owns The Wall Street Journal and the Fox networks, among dozens of other media outlets worldwide — wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ that was excerpted from comments he made to the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 1 about journalism and the Internet. Murdoch is often viewed among print journalists as a kind of Darth Vader, a man responsible for taking quality newspapers and sucking them dry because he demands huge profits while meddling in the newsroom.
But on one issue I am in complete lockstep with this aging media mogul — content providers like The Smoky Mountain News, the Asheville newspaper and the major national papers must, in some way, be compensated by those who read our stories online. Murdoch is searching frantically to figure out how to enact a pay system for those who read stories via the Internet. There are several models out there right now. Many newspaper Web sites have some content that must be purchased and some that can be accessed for free, while others sites are not available at all unless readers pay a subscription fee.
Murdoch’s enemies right now are those who lift — i.e., steal — stories from newspapers and put them on their own Web sites, thereby gaining valuable, credible news stories with very little investment. Here’s what he told the FCC about these so-called “aggregators:”
“Right now content creators bear all the costs, while aggregators enjoy many of the benefits. In the long term, this is untenable. We are open to different pay models. But the principle is clear: To paraphrase a famous economist, there’s no such thing as a free news story, and we are going to ensure that we get a fair but modest price for the value we provide.”
The jury is out on whether Murdoch is an aging entrepreneur with a nostalgic dream or a formidable businessman who will find a way to make money for those who invest in reporting and editing. But I’d like to think our economic system will reward those businesses that produce a product that people find useful.
Here’s Murdoch on that point, from the same column: “My second point follows from my first: Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.”
The Asheville Citizen-Times decided to make its print product more valuable — some stories will only be available to those who buy their printed newspaper. On the paper’s Web site, you can read an outline of the Evergreen story but not the details. If Gannett can make this work — and I hope it can — it adds value to its print product. I suspect that a lot of people in Haywood County who otherwise don’t purchase a Sunday and Monday newspaper did so this week.
I’d wager neither the ACT’s model to bolster its print product or that dream of Murdoch’s to get everyone who uses online content to pay are where the future lies, but it may be somewhere in between. Again, here’s Murdoch on the changes the news delivery business is facing, and why he thinks smart news companies will survive.
“To make informed decisions, free men and women require honest and reliable news about events affecting their countries and their lives. Whether the newspaper of the future is delivered with electrons or dead trees is ultimately not that important. What is most important is that the news industry remains free, independent — and competitive.”