Wanted: Survival strategies for dying newspapers

The fate of US newspapers is in the news as journalists, editors, bloggers, media pundits and concerned citizens debate the future of the troubled industry.

“How to Save Your Newspaper,” is the cover story in Time in which Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of the magazine, revives a plan to make readers pay for news online through a “micropayments” system.

“Battle Plans for Newspapers” is the headline on a feature in the New York Times in which the editors of the paper invite eight prominent media and web figures to suggest “survival strategies” for endangered US newspapers.

Among the contributors: Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist.org and the man some in the newspaper industry accuse of singlehandedly destroying their lucrative classified ad business with his free online

Newmark, stressing that “vigorous journalism, particularly investigative journalism, must be preserved,” pointed to “hyperlocal” news websites and “philanthropic” ventures like ProPublica.org as
possible future models.

Micropayments, hyperlocal and philanthropic schemes are a few of the ideas being bandied about in the pages of dying US newspapers — which cut more than 20 000 jobs last year — and in scores of blogs on the web.

In a recent opinion piece in the Times, David Swensen, the chief investment officer at Yale University, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst, argued that US newspapers should be turned into “nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities”.

Most industry observers tend to agree on what is killing US newspapers.

Print advertising revenue is steadily declining and circulation is falling as readers go online to get news for free. Online advertising revenue has been rising but is not keeping pace with the drop in print advertising revenue.

What they do not agree on is the solution.

Much of the debate has focused on whether readers, accustomed to getting news for free online, will be ready to pay for quality journalism.

The Wall Street Journal is currently the only major US publication which has succesfully managed to make readers pay to gain access to all of the content on its website.

In a recent online question and answer session with readers, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said his paper may also put some of its content behind a pay barrier, less than two years after a failed experiment with just such a system known as TimesSelect.

“Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organised and explained — that stuff wants to be paid for,” he said.

“So far, it gets paid for mainly by advertisers, but a lively, deadly serious discussion continues within the <>Times about ways to get consumers to pay for what we make.”

In his Time cover story, Isaacson said “the key to attracting online revenue, I think, is to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment.

“Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day’s full edition or two dollars for a month’s worth of web access.”

Getting readers to pay was also the subject of a recently leaked memo from Steve Brill, the founder of Court TV, to the Times in which he suggested a “new business model to save the New York Times and journalism itself.”

“There is simply no example, not one — in print, online, in television — of quality content offered for free ever resulting in a viable business,” he said.

Noting that the Times website averages 20-million unique visitors a month, Brill proposed a 10-cent fee for each article, a 40-cent “day pass,” a one-month fee of $7,50 and a yearly subscription of $55.

Journalist Steve Outing was among those taking issue with micropayments saying the idea would just “hasten newspapers’ death spiral”.

“This approach hasn’t worked. It won’t work. Is completely counter to the nature of the internet,” Outing wrote on his blog, steveouting.com.

Putting content behind a pay barrier prevents it from being found and shared by search engines such as Google, he added. “If Google can’t point people to your content, you may as well not be on the web. And
you’re out of business.”

Outing instead pointed to a California start-up venture called Kachingle and a voluntary system under which readers would “agree to pay a monthly fee to support valuable online content from publishers and bloggers you like.”

TJ Sullivan, a Los Angeles blogger, is calling for drastic measures.

Sullivan is circulating an online petition calling for US newspapers to shut down their websites to non-paying subscribers for a week in July and to publish only in print.

“Now is the time for newspapers to do something proactive; time for them to demonstrate what life would be like without them,” he wrote on the website LA Observed. – AFP

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