This is the year that the newspaper, as a business model, dies. The Rocky Mountain News closed last month. The San Diego News Tribune has been narrowly saved, for now. The San Francisco Chronicle is a dead man walking.
What’s odd is that the combined national readership of print and online news is actually higher than ever. So journalism could be saved. But how?
First, let’s agree that we need to save journalism, not newspapers. The clock cannot be turned back. Some people are writing that the solution is to force people to pay for content again, perhaps in the form of micropayments. But this idea will fail, because it’s built on the newspaper model of scarcity. The bundling of subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising worked because only a few had the means of production, and we had no other choices. Today, we do. Tomorrow, only a special class of media (e.g., Wall Street Journal, professional and trade journals) will get away with this. The horse is out of the barn, and news is abundant and free. Move on.
So what business model will allow journalism companies to thrive? The goal should be to create business models (note the plural) that attract investors and make it financially feasible to be a lifelong, professional journalist.
We really need those veterans. In the recent HBO series, “The Wire,” a 60-ish reporter is about to be laid off. There’s a breaking story at Baltimore City Hall, and the callow, 30-ish reporter who gets the assignment isn’t up to the job. So as the final act in his career, the veteran picks up the phone, sweet talks the person on the other end of the line, and gets to the bottom of the story. It takes him about two minutes. If we lose that in journalism, the nation suffers.
Online pure plays could work, because their required ROI is a fraction of a newspaper’s ROI. But with newspapers’ huge capital costs – those iconic printing presses – perhaps only bankruptcies will set them free and allow them to compete successfully with the pure plays. Bankruptcies cause pain for all involved, but I don’t see any other way out of it.
A fresh start would allow journalism companies to focus on the news business, not the printing business. They could then be creative with new business models and test new bundling models that combine news with what people value today – services and products.
Think: What do you value and pay for today? Your answer could save journalism.