Every nine months or so, some mossback proclaims -- in print -- that newspapers would be just fine if they'd stop giving away their content on the Internet.
The latest is Stanford University journalism professor Joel Brinkley, who dishes out a mixture of bad reporting and wishful thinking in a Sunday op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, one of America's great failing newspapers.
"Web advertising generally pays 10 cents for every $1 earned from print ads."
It's true that many (poorly performing) newspapers bring in 10 times as much revenue from print, but that completely misses what's actually happening in local marketplaces. Pure-play Internet companies are walking away with the local markets of poorly performing newspapers. Charging for access would destroy any chance a newspaper might have of competing with those pure plays. All the growth is in digital media.
"When the sites were regarded as technology curiosities, there was no thought of charging people to use them. By the time papers realized that they should be charging, it was too late."
False. The first online initiatives mounted by U.S. newspapers were all based on pay-for-access systems.
When the Web arrived, the first major response of the U.S. newspaper industry was to plan a unified
pay-access online consortium. The original visionOne early vision for the New Century Network was for each participating newspaper to charge for access, and bundle into the deal a sort of library card system that would let you get news from every other participating newspaper as well.
Some newspapers even tried bundling newspaper content access with Internet access.
It didn't work. In science, this is called empirical data. When data contradicts your theory, guess which one wins?
"Several papers tried charging, but most backed off."
This is a non sequitur to the previous claim that "there was no thought of charging," but hey, everybody needs an editor.
It's true that several papers did try charging for access, and in nearly every case it's proved to be a bad idea. The single clear exception is the Wall Street Journal, whose subscription fees are nearly always covered as business expenses.
Rupert Murdoch, who can count money much more accurately than your typical journalist or journalism professor, has looked closely and declared WSJ's model pretty much a wash. It might make about the same money by dropping its user fees and opening up the site. Or not, depending on economic winds. Either way, it demonstrates that even if you have amazingly great content that readers can con their employers into paying for, the model just isn't a slam-dunk.
"Over the years, the Justice Department has issued numerous antitrust exemptions allowing two newspapers in a community to combine their business operations so both newsrooms could survive."
No, it was Congress that enabled the numerous exemptions, through the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. How's that working out for you? Not so well. I worked for one of those preserved-but-dead newspapers, so I know that from personal experience.
"Now, here's my idea: The newspaper industry should ask the Justice Department for an antitrust exemption that would allow publishers to collaborate on a decision to begin charging for their Web sites. ... if most papers in a region - San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, for example - began charging for Web access at more or less the same time, many readers would likely subscribe."
And if we put a tooth under our pillows, we'll raise enough money to bail the San Francisco Chronicle out of its million-dollar-a-week hole. This conclusion is based on what market research, exactly?
The truth about newspapers is that news is not, and never was, the real reason for home-delivered subscriptions. The real reason was entertainment. Even the act of reading the news was primarily an entertainment-seeking behavior. Gee, let's just go around and cut everybody's cable lines. And wrap the houses with tinfoil to keep out the radio signals. That'd save newspapers for sure.