Cargo Cult Science In The Newspaper World: If We All Charge, People Will Pay

from the this-will-fail dept

Newspapers continue to insist that people will pay for news, but they never give any reasons why. Instead, they keep working on these vague threats of colluding and promising “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.” The latest is that the editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, is claiming that most news sites will be charging within a year.

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.

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Comments on “Cargo Cult Science In The Newspaper World: If We All Charge, People Will Pay”

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Ilfar says:


I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – Half the time it’s the arguments in the comments to a news piece where I learn most about the subject. I don’t even bother to click the links to other news sites (in part because they’re rather bandwidth heavy) because someone’s always going to summarise the important pieces while hitting someone with the Stupid Hammer.

Anonymous Coward says:

i welcome the paywalls

it’ll hasten the extinction of these dinosaurs.

let’s assume that all these establishment news sites only report from primary sources, thus making them secondary sources. that means we define blogs as sites reporting from secondary sources, thus making them tertiary sources. i count gossip/celebrity/list news in a third category as it’s not really news and they thrive off of critical mass.

but even if we assume all the establishment media hops to the other side of the paywall, i don’t think they realize that establishment media doesn’t own the entire secondary market. there are hundreds if not thousands of other sites without the same marketing budget willing to take over.

Anonymous Coward says:

“I’m wondering if he’s willing to bet money on that, because I’ll take the other side of that wager. “

Mike, you need to rethink that bet. Your betting they won’t start charging within a year. They most likely will. The better bet is they will start charging within a year but will lose their collective asses to competitors who don’t charge. I’ll take some of that wager too.

Dave (user link) says:

Letter to the Editor

Dear Washington Post and New York Times,

Please, please, please, please, please DO put all of your incestuous pro-state propaganda masquerading as news behind a paywall. It will speed the death of your awful enterprises as more and more people turn to less blatantly biased, free, alternative sources.

A non-reader

P.S. “Professional” journos need to get over themselves and their sense of entitlement. So anyone with a laptop, Internet connection, and something to say can gain a dedicated readership? It’s not their fault Mr. “Professional Journalist” is still paying off thousands of dollars in student loans for his “degree” in what anyone can do. You misjudged reality — wanna blame someone, look in the mirror.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Letter to the Editor

Dave, love the humor partner, but there’s a reason this won’t happen and you even stated it clearly. The news outlets today are merely a propoganda wing for American Business and American Government (which are made of the exact same people, anyway).

Most in government, particularly high up the executive branch, don’t fully understand just how threatened the traditional news industry is, probably because the TV news stations haven’t been as effected as the papers. Once they are, I can assure you that you will see the full weight of the American government brought to bear on the problem, doing whatever it has to to ensure the survival of traditional media. After all, they are owned by those in government anyway.

Trails says:

The Internet = Distribution

The thing these newspapers(and the RIAA and the MPAA and the BSA and all their ilk) don’t seem to get, even still, is that the internet is a game changer. Any business model that was previously propped up on controlling the means of distribution is now defunct, it just may not know it yet.

Legislation will simply force certain types of traffic underground.

The internet is a wonderful new means of distribution, very decentralized and difficult to control. These papers were in a killer position to flourish. They had the established brands and reader relationships. They could have moved towards a much more engaging information delivery. Instead, they stuck their articles from the paper online, years behind the rest of the web, they added comments, and they do nothing in those comments to foster a meaningful discussion or debate.

The Globe & Mail, canada’s leading newspaper, lets almost every comment thread degenerate into “the Liberals suck, anyone who likes the Liberals is a monster and deserves to be shot” “No, the Conservatives suck, and if you like the Conservatives you’re a Nazi/Commi/Terrorist/Pedophile” (for americans, replace “Liberals” with “Democrats” and “Conservatives” with “Republicans”). It’s not interesting to anyone except people who just want to yell at each other, and of course, the journos rarely if ever get involved.

So of course, blogs that provide a more engaging debate (not that there isn’t vitriol on blog comments) win. It’s obvious.

Oh, and if Mr. Barber is right, and news sites DO start charging within the year, they’ll be closing shop in about fourteen months.

Anonymous Coward says:

“He … uses the same analogy of cable TV.”

You mean where cable companies lobby for limited competition so they can charge you a fortune and stick you with a million commercials? This is a terrible business model that benefits no one but the entities lobbying for it. Cable T.V. is a COMPLETE failure for the consumer, it’s too expensive and has too many commercials, and it’s a failure because their business model consists of lobbying the government to limit competition and create laws that only benefit them. We don’t want the Internet to turn into cable television, it’s a TERRIBLE platform for consumers and, furthermore, we need to break the existing cable business model and change the laws to allow anyone to compete in the industry (ie: by allowing others to build infrastructure or to use the existing infrastructure).

Sumphat says:

Pay for content

Hum…the only way I can think of pay-for-content working is the porn industry. While may similarities exist between the news outlets and the porn industry the biggist difference is profit structuring. The porn industry gets paid by viewer who want to see the content, the news industry uses content to boost readership which inturn supports higher pricing for advertisement space. The print media charges a small price to the subscriber to defray the cost of printing and delivery, this cost per reader is so low using the web that charging for delivery is silly. When news outlets charge to see their content they will lose readership and will soon no longer be able to demand and get the prices for advertisments they have grown accustomed to, forcing them to charge more and more from readers and less and less from advertisers. Looks like a losing proposition to me.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Yah know ....

“but has no interest in actually being a part of the process or included in any sort of discussion”

Another great idea because of this wonderful site thanks…

“NEWS – Music”
1 note/entry) Use the basic model from the standardized/open source music system for news about music.

2) spin that off to its own system of participatory news.

batch (profile) says:

too bad for them

I already consider mainstream journalists barely above worthless scumbags and don’t give my attention to their content, paid or free. They’ve ruined any chance of journalistic integrity by largely pretending the the whole warrantless wiretapping never happened or that its OK for the government to do something like that. My own father who watches the news daily didn’t know about it because the worthless press didn’t consider it newsworthy. But Michael Jacksons death? I hear they followed his corpse to the coroners office, probably hoping it’d fall out of the vehicle. MJ’s death is not important compared to the government doing something completely illegal and unconstitutional and our elected officials allowing them to get away with it granting retroactive immunity. But don’t bother telling these a-holes in the press; they’re too busy focusing on feeding their greed to provide honest, valuable, journalistic integrity.

2MUCHMJ says:

The Big Picture

I think there is a far greater issue here. How will the standard business model be affected when the ever-growing internet populace is able to FREELY ditribute (Thanks Trails) ANY kind of digital media? Imagine, several generations from now, the entirety of the world is on-line and tech-savvy. The mere idea of charging someone for internet content simply falls apart. How do you set a price on something free? The internet is the revoultion of the shared idea; Unity over division.

Me says:

Blogs != News

Blogs are not news. Maybe 1 in 10,000 bloggers actually do any research or are a primary source. Most just sit in front on their computer and regurgitate what they read elsewhere with their own opinion and call it “news”. Newspapers and TV news still have on location reporters, something the blogging world will likely never have, and thus these news service can report on actually news. Besides, blogs are so filled with the writer’s opinion that even trying to extract any useful information from them is nigh impossible (Techdirt excepted of course).

Overcast (profile) says:

Re: Blogs != News

Newspapers and TV news still have on location reporters, something the blogging world will likely never have, and thus these news service can report on actually news.

That could – potentially; dramatically change. If they do start charging for ALL of the news sites – it would do one of two things I guess – either get people to pay, or create a huge demand for ‘free’ news overnight.

Remember – Compuserv? They used to charge fees for everything – then along comes AOL – 20 bucks a month.

I wonder how many people even in IT now; have no idea who/what Compuserv was? But I bet most, if not all – know what AOL is.

Google’s another example – do you really think a Search Engine could get away with fees for searches? I think long ago – that was tried and it failed.

If they want to sell newspapers; maybe they should band up with the RIAA and start putting free CD’s in them, lol

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Blogs != News

“That could – potentially; dramatically change. If they do start charging for ALL of the news sites – it would do one of two things I guess – either get people to pay, or create a huge demand for ‘free’ news overnight.”

It already is changing. It might not be wide spread yet, but as an example, one of my favorite sports/humor blogs,, does actually go onsite to the games, gets occasional interviews, etc. Also, their affiliated “partner” blogs do the same thing, so they are effectively covering wide geography.

Anonymous Coward says:

those "worthless scumbag" journalists

Those who carp about “mainstream” journalism won’t have long to wait. It will be destroyed. In its place will be amateurs with agendas seeking hearsay evidence to back up their preconceptions — basically, the Fox News model. Since none of you seem to have the faintest idea what professional journalists do, you won’t miss them, since you prefer left- or right-wing echo chambers anyway. After all, anyone can do what Seymour Hersh does; it’s just words on a page. Multiple sourcing and enterprise reporting are so last century. And it’s a wonder old-fashioned reporters ever wrote anything without the “community” telling them what conclusions to reach beforehand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

News from social sites is just perception. A single person’s view, clouded by their own personal beliefs, judgements, and prejudices. The idea of “news” as a profession is to try as hard as possible to remove that “man on the street” view of things, and pull back a bit to get a better idea of the full story.

What would today’s street car crash in San Francisco read like if the only story was from a person in the front row of the car that got hit? Or maybe only from the guy in the coffee shop across the street that didn’t see it happen but looked up when he heard the noise? Would we be getting the news, the information, or just “I saw stuff”?

News isn’t just what you saw, it’s why it happened – and very, very few blog style citizen journalists are ever going to be able to tell you why, just that it happened.

Ed says:

Mike, I think you missed a point.

Part of the reason all these journalists are saying this, is to accustom people to the concept that “You should pay to read the news on line”. Many people, hearing this often enough, will simply accept it as fact, and pay. After all “I read it in the newspaper, it must be true.”

To many journalists want to be William Randolf Hearst, they want to MAKE the news, rather than Cronkite, how with great sincerity, reported the news. Oh Walter, you will be sorely missed.

alternatives() says:

Let them charge.

Please DO charge – after you’ve gotten a government bailout.

I have not bothered with your sites full of pop ups, pop unders and flash content – and I’ll be dammed if I’ll send you a check.

Oh, and stop leaving your black poly-bag wrapped sunday advertising supplements on my porch. I’ve been calling 1 day a week for a month to ask that you not do this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lone bloggers aren’t going to replace the traditional news outlets. Perhaps they will for a little while, but eventually the niche will be filled with more secondary news sources, much like the traditional media, but with a business model more suited to the Internet. Assuming that no one else is capable of journalism, or that journalists themselves won’t join these new news outlets, is just silly.

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