Another day, another Van Winkle

Today is February 28, and by bending time and space and peering through the Intertubes, I have just read a March 1 piece by Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus.

He is not back from the dead, just from the deathlike sleep that gripped so many print journalists over the last 15 years. Like so many other newsroom Rip Van Winkles, he has awakened to the importance of this Internet thing but failed to understand it: "iTunes proves newspapers can and should charge for online access."

Leaving aside all the nagging little details having to do with violating federal law, killing competition, halting innovation and the like, there are some really obvious issues with this "idea," and the biggest is that iTunes has nothing to teach us about news.

Consider this about iTunes:

  • It's just about the only way to get content into a proprietary device that pretty much created, and continues to dominate, the digital music player market.
  • Nearly all of its sales are in music, which is something you may keep forever and consume repeatedly. Even so the price point is low.
  • The content it sells comes from a highly centralized, pre-existing cartel.
  • The musicians who succeed on iTunes are extraordinarily talented artists.
  • The music industry has no problem declaring all-out war against its customers.

That doesn't sound much like the news business, which is open to all, highly decentralized, full of independent players, has long been operating on open networks browsed by open devices using open standards, and is often guilty of paying poor wages and consequently attracting a lot of second-class talent.

To be fair to Lazarus, he didn't really just wake up. He was peddling similar nonsense in the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago (thanks to @rakeshlobster for the pointer).

"Whatever else," Lazarus wrote two years ago, "newspapers must demonstrate that their online content has value." OK, let's go with that. And start by not recycling dead old ideas.

Some other gems:

"On the sell side, we have companies that manufacture a quality product that's easily differentiated from inferior goods." Well, that's certainly not true in this case. And I for one will not pay for sloppy reporting and sloppy thinking. That's abundantly available from free sources.

"On the buy side, we have consumers who have desired this product for centuries and will undoubtedly continue doing so for centuries to come (unless stupidity becomes a defining virtue)." Nice shot at your fleeing customers. Let's take a look at the circulation of the Los Angeles Times, shall we? How's that customer desire thing working out for you? Doing OK?

"It's clear that paper newspapers are on their way out and electronic 'newspapers' are the future, whether on the Web, on Kindles or whatever." Nope. It's not clear at all.

In the short to medium term, paper newspapers as a product form aren't going away, although some specific, easily identifiable paper newspapers are dead. We lost one just yesterday.

In the longer term, the essence of the newspaper form -- the bundling of unassociated news, data, entertainment and marketing materials into a unitary mass-delivery package -- is not going to survive, in any medium. Smart people in the news business already have figured this out and are hard at work developing new kinds of products aimed at niches in an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

Now, I might be one of those people Lazarus identifies as "self-serving bloggers," but I've been working in the area of online news since 1994. Nearly all of that time, I've been working for newspaper companies. (I spent a year at Cox Interactive, which also served cable, radio and broadcast TV markets.) I grew up in the newspaper business and I think finding sustainable business models for journalism is pretty damned important, self-serving or not.

Everything I've learned since 1994 leads me to believe that business approaches built around an assumption of scarcity will not work in an economy of surplus. And imagining that newspapers have some sort of defensible monopoly on the consumer value they provide is delusional.


One important difference that people forget is that on iTunes people are paying for a specific expression of content. That, under copyright law, can be protected. When it comes to news, people care about the information and the facts. Those are not subject to copyright. Even if the newspapers formed a cartel as Lazarus suggests (despite the obvious illegality) and locked up their expressions of content, it wouldn't be that hard for others to extract the facts and provide it for free. And completely legally. Bloggers already do this today. The other bone I have to pick with Lazarus is the assumption that newspapers "manufacture a quality product that's easily differentiated from inferior goods." On average, newspaper content is better than the average blog. But for discriminating news consumers, you can find much better blog content than newspaper content. There are more experts who are blogging than there are experts in newsrooms. I read blogs by Om Malik, Paul Kedrosky, Robert Reich, George Mankiw, etc. They know a lot more about their topics than the journalists who write about them. (And frequently quote them.)