Cargo Cult Science In The Newspaper World: If We All Charge, People Will Pay
from the this-will-fail dept
I'm wondering if he's willing to bet money on that, because I'll take the other side of that wager.
First, as noted, very very very few online news sites give readers a real reason to purchase a subscription. Many could if they spent the time trying to figure out how, but very few do that. They just seem to think that charging for content is the answer. It's not. But, more importantly, you get the feeling that Barber is very narrowly defining what counts as a "news site." He does a bit of "damning by feint praise" thing on blogs, but seems to (once again) confuse blogging the platform with journalism the practice (apples and oranges, certainly). So, when he talks about "almost all" news sites charging, he's leaving out plenty of things that he doesn't consider to be news sites.
The big problem with that? Most of the reading public doesn't agree. Many are content to get their news from those other sources.
Furthermore, for every major news site that decides to charge, they have just opened the playing field wide open for others to come and scoop up their market with a better, smarter business model. And don't think some smart media execs and entrepreneurs aren't salivating over the opportunity of some major publications to go behind the paywall.
Still, Barber's talk was a lot more involved than just that one quote that's getting attention. You can read the whole thing, where he spends an awful lot of time talking up the importance of journalism, as if it's some sort of mantra. "Journalism is important, so of course people will pay us, because we're important." But as you read through the speech it becomes clear what the problem is in his thinking.
He puts "journalism" on a pedestal.
He continually talks up how important journalism is to the community, but doesn't do much to talk about how important the community is to news organizations. It's standard media elitism to assume that it's the news that's so important, and the clueless public is sitting there waiting to shovel it in -- but has no interest in actually being a part of the process or included in any sort of discussion. At best, he spends a little bit of time just talking about how consumers "consume" the news in a different way, and participate in stories in a different way, but he doesn't talk much about better serving them in terms of what they want to do. No, instead, he focuses on how important news is for that community, not about helping that community do more.
Meanwhile, along these same lines, David Simon, who's rantings on newspapers we've debunked before, has written a silly opinion piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, where he tells the heads of the NY Times and the Washington Post to both wall off all their content behind a paywall, insisting they can pretend they didn't collude, by saying they just read Simon's advice and decided to take it.
Simon's column involves strawman upon strawman, ignoring economic and technological realities. He (just like Peter Osnos in the same issue of the Columbia Journalism review) uses the same analogy of cable TV. Again, to say this misses the point is being unfair to the point -- which is somewhere a few miles away. Cable TV works because of certain limitations in television. Those limitations do not exist online. That's basic technology. How pricing works is economics, and when you have limits (lower quantity supply) price can be driven up. But when the supply is effectively unlimited (such as online), then price gets driven down. That's economics. Making arguments that ignore both technology and economics are not compelling. They're a waste of time.
It's as if folks who work in the old newspaper industry still can't be bothered with actually understanding the fundamental issue they're facing. They're using cargo cult science. They remember (somewhat incorrectly) a world that was before -- a world where people paid for newspapers via subscription and only went to that source. But like the cargo cultists, they're getting the wrong message. They think that if they just act in the same way as what they remembered in the past, they'll get the same results. So if they dress up like soldiers and man the airport (i.e., put subscriptions on news sites) they'll suddenly get food to drop from airplanes again (get people to pay again).
But this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why people actually paid for newspapers in the past. At the time, it was the only real way to get that information and to be a part of that local community. The paper served the community without much competition. Yet, these days, there is plenty of competition, and these newspaper guys aren't talking about serving the community better than the competition, they're talking about limiting the value of newspapers by putting up paywalls, that make it harder for people to consumer the news, harder for people to discuss the news, harder for people to share the news and harder for people to be a part of the community.
And they'll wonder why the food doesn't fall from the sky?
Putting up subscription walls and assuming that the world goes back to normal is no different than the cargo cultists. It's totally misunderstanding the cause of what happened in the past, and thinking that if you just recreate a few superficial structures, the rest will magically come back. It won't.