If Newspapers Had Never Offered Free News Online… They Would Still Be Failing

from the besides,-they-tried-that dept

Mathew Ingram points us to a column by yet another “old school journalist,” Leonard Pitts Jr., lamenting the trouble that newspapers are having today, which once again includes the two most popular ridiculous “tropes” of old school journalists. First, the claim that people think that professional journalists will just be replaced by citizen journalists. That’s misleading. People think that citizen journalists can help create better journalism, but I don’t know anyone who thinks that you get rid of all professional journalists. Pitts speaks eloquently about how journalists like himself parachute into dangerous areas and report on what’s going on there — and he suggests no citizen journalists could possibly do that. That’s kind of insulting to all of the people who already are in those places. And, again, no one says that professional journalists go away. It’s just that the role of a journalist changes somewhat.

But the bigger, more ridiculous claim, is the one that newspapers never should have posted free content online:

Rather, the state of daily newspaper journalism only proves English majors should not be allowed to make business decisions. Only English majors could give their product away (i.e., online), then be surprised to see revenues decline.

We’ve debunked this ridiculous trope in the past. Lots (tons, in fact) of newspapers did try to charge online. And you know what happened? Their revenue declined. Because no one signed up. Those early experiments were all failures. People just started going elsewhere for news anyway. And the real issue, of course, is that it wasn’t “the news” that was the newspapers’ true business in the first place: it was bringing together a local community (around the news) and then selling the attention of that community to advertisers.

But the market changed. Craigslist showed that you didn’t need a newspaper (or to pay high prices) to do “classifieds.” The web created other types of communities as well, such as communities of interests, rather than communities of location, like newspapers. But (for the most part) newspaper industry folks still refuse to understand this. They think that they’re in the “business of news” and so they think that they need to get people to pay for news. And the end result is fewer people in their audience — meaning a smaller community and much less interest in anyone paying to get the attention of that community.

The failure isn’t the failure to charge. It was the failure to innovate and to recognize that they needed to be building stronger communities. And, of course, one way to do that would be to… empower citizens to be journalists as well. But apparently that’s not allowed in the mindset of old school journalists either.

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Comments on “If Newspapers Had Never Offered Free News Online… They Would Still Be Failing”

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Lowery's Sock Puppet says:

I am David Lowery’s sock puppet stand-in and I want you to know why we are so angry.

“I figured out a way of making money as a musician pretty good after CVB, but 10 years or so in to my relative gravy train, the world changed. Selling plastic discs through the post for $10 or more a pop was no longer lucrative.

Kids could find the songs on “them damned interwebz” for free. No logins, no sign-up. Just Click.
Technically illegal, but so much easier than what the Me or thelabels were offering(nothing.

So now the world (Amanda Palmer) has passed me by and I have a lot to say about it. Supported by anecdotal facts… sorta.

BentFranklin (profile) says:

In all the cyber sci-fi novels there is always some company that trades in information, databases, etc. The more exclusive the info, the higher the price, the more people try to hack it, etc.

All these newspaper companies fancy themselves as this sort of information dealer. But the reason no one pays for their information is because it’s crap — even with all their so-called professional journalists. That’s because all the professional journalists are corrupt or co-opted. So if the journalistic truth challenges the status quo power structure it isn’t reported. There’s your pink slime, Mr. Newhoff.

Now, if these companies actually told the truth no matter what, that would be worth paying for. But as it is, they want to feed you a plate of dogshit and charge you for a steak.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Another problem I see is the fact that newspapers no longer raise issues that matter.

There used to be a time where newspapers (or so I’m told – I wasn’t born then) would have gone crazy over bad government decisions and would have made sure people realized there was a problem.

Who fueled the protests against SOPA (i.e. who made the general public angry and care about the issue)? Google and Wikipedia. Where was the press? Not talking about SOPA or defending it.

The press no longer gets the point across to the public. And the problem is, now the press is seen as covering for the government.

Give me a press with integrity that keeps the government in check and I’ll pay them money. Give me a press that informs me about everything except what matters and I will throw it out the window.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Issues that matter.

Like the first time I was in DC back in the early 70s. I got off work that day wearing from a constriction job still wearing old mud caked cloths.

Started walking around the National Mall when I was hit in head with a brick by a reporter. Then with blood all over my face and my laying on the ground he shaves a camera and mike in my face.

Made the nightly news.

Now you people do not know the above is true, after all, there was only three people present, the reporter (who hit me in the head with the brick), his camera man (who had a very large video camera on his shoulder), and myself but I do.

Nor were you present in the airplane flying from London to Belgrade listening to reporters write a news report before they even arrived in country about Tito up-coming death.

No and I will save this mot clearly.

News reporters including Dan Rather, are the most honest people I have ever had the displeasure to associate with.

They are almost as ethical as ballot box stuffing Chicago politicians.

So why would anyone be suprised when no one believes them or the news paper they work for.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

What really killed early online journalism efforts was that journalists like Pitts refused to allow any type of interaction or community building efforts. Blogs allowed and even encouraged comment and discussion while newspapers insisted on maintaining total control. Big media in general was so blinded by their model of dumping information, music, and entertainment on consumers that they missed the fact that many people craved choice and interaction. Some companies and industries still have not figured that out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I completely agree. Big News wants you to sign up and pre-screens comments. Vulgarity and politically incorrect speech are censored.

Also, Big News communities are full of idiots. Most comments add nothing to the discussion, they are baseless opinions written by people who seem to think they just need to write something on the internet to make it happen.
I’m not saying censoring such comments is the solution, but somehow wiser discussions are not encouraged on those websites.
My personal favorite in the idiocy category are people who criticize judges/politicians for being incompetent when it comes to criminality, and then argue that empowering these allegedly incompetent people with the death penalty would fix everything. When somebody is too stupid to cut their steak with a knife you don’t give them a chainsaw: that just won’t end well, but apparently that logic is foreign to some people. Yet these people are everywhere when there is an article about criminality.

Also, most big news websites see their science articles taken over by creationists who always spur a debate on evolution/creationism. There’s no way to discuss the implications of a new discovery or whatever the article is about, it always comes down to “evolution is false!!”. And those websites refuse to deal with this (perhaps remove such comments as off topic? I mean we got it the first time that you believe in creationism, we’d like to talk about something else now…).

So like you say, on one hand those websites want to control the comments. But on the other hand, they also have terrible communities when it comes to discussion. Both problems drive away people from there, starting with the brightest, which means the community gets stupider and stupider and people keep leaving.

I’m not sure what the solution is but news blogs like Slashdot or Techdirt don’t have the same problem (they do have idiots, but not as many).

Anonymous Coward says:

The 21ST century is ALREADY 1/10th over, for f sakes!

Like Broadcast TV/Cable TV/Radio and anything regarding to the MAFIAA, printed newspapers are antiquated inventions from previous centuries that have long outlived any usefulness they might once have had and need to be killed off ASAP, period.

Forget ’em and let’s get on with the modern age.

Anonymous Coward says:

Newspapers sold ads, others are doing a better job at selling ads now and actually bringing people to their platforms, newspapers unless they reinvent themselves as platforms for the 21th will die out.

Kickstartify the news, build a social element into the news, do polings, create a forum for the flame wars(debates dude).

The guy who cracks it will be the Steve Jobs of journalism, but right now apparently all managers are useless they don’t have the vision, they don’t have the know how, they don’t have motivation to learn or experiment and they also now probably don’t even have the money anymore to even do the experiments, although that is not really a problem today while the internet is still free as in freedom.

Pete Austin says:

Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web

Ironically, the French alternative to the Internet, which even had rules to prevent competition vs the newspaper industry, dies this week. More evidence about the need to evolve appropriate business models.

“From the start, there were commercial interests that were highly suspicious of Minitel – the newspaper industry, which feared the new creation would drain vital small ads revenue.

So France being France, the government intervened to save the press. It made a rule which said that the only institutions entitled to provide services on Minitel were registered newspapers…

“The failure of Minitel was not one of technology,” says Benjamin Bayart, head of France’s oldest internet provider, French Data Network.

“It was the whole model that was doomed. Basically to set up a service on Minitel, you had to ask permission from France Telecom. You had to go to the old guys who ran the system, and who knew absolutely nothing about innovation.”

“It meant that nothing new could ever happen. Basically, Minitel innovated from 1978 to 1982, and then it stopped,” he says.

Anonymous Coward says:

What happens when everyone, everywhere is streaming news live?

Youtube: Project Glass: Live Demo At Google I/O

The next award winning image could come from someone streaming live to the world what is happening in his neighborhood, people can see what others see instantaneously, people in war zones would be able to send those images to anyone in the world, of course governments trying to hide bad things would have a hard time doing so with so many recording/streaming devices all over the place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Journalism isn’t about the actual news. It’s about the writing, you fucking hilariously hopeless ignoramus.

No wonder everyone suffers when reading your buffoonish rants- the ones you’ve obviously convinced yourself are important.

Self-delusion is one of the most common traits of a clinical sociopath like yourself.

PopeyeLePoteaux says:

Re: Re:

“No wonder everyone suffers when reading your buffoonish rants- the ones you’ve obviously convinced yourself are important.”

Hehe, it seems you are the only one who “suffers” when reading the articles posted here, no wonder why you spend your free time making yourself looking as the real buffoon here.

Are you a masochist?

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

‘Journalism’ is an umbrella term that covers a lot of things. And news happens to be a huge part of it.

Hell, the first year or two of traditional journalism school is focused on beating every last trace of style, voice and opinion out of your writing until you are capable of neutrally reporting the cold, hard facts. Only then are you permitted to flex your literary muscles a little bit – and you better still be prepared to get smacked down by profs if they think you are being flowery or self-indulgent.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:


Hey Mike, you should setup a subdomain: tropes.techdirt.com – where you can post the various debunked arguments and fallacies, and the studies, evidence, and arguments against them. Then you (and us!) can just link back to that when they’re brought up. I don’t imagine people will get lost in it for days like over at tvtropes, but you never know.

(also, I expect to be paid a bazillion dollars for this idea if it works, but I’m gonna leave execution all up to you /s)

fogbugzd (profile) says:

What really killed early online journalism efforts was that journalists like Pitts refused to allow any type of interaction or community building efforts. Blogs allowed and even encouraged comment and discussion while newspapers insisted on maintaining total control. Big media in general was so blinded by their model of dumping information, music, and entertainment on consumers that they missed the fact that many people craved choice and interaction. Some companies and industries still have not figured that out.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Citizen journalists

Nearly all scientific news comes from papers written by someone in the scientific community, and reformatted (usually carelessly and poorly due to time pressures) by professionals. The only problem is the reformatting, mostly terrible.
Case in point – the article said “Vitamin C has no benefits for heart patients” – the reformat in the LA Times (reprinted widely) said “Vitamin C has no benefits”.
Fortunately the reprint is so bizarre it was easy to catch (except for “professional” journalists).

Anonymous Coward says:

The newspapers fell behind and it’s news began to be a day old by the time you got it. No longer worth prime rates and premium prices. They had a place when everyone was in awe of the telegraph. Communications changed, people expected different, the old methods don’t work as well today as the market changes.

That’s the topic often here; the failure of the vested interests to change with the times. Money was to be had in the heydays; it should be had now doing the same thing that worked then. The thought of protecting the income stream with set-asides hasn’t been kind to those vested interests over time and history.

Where’s the buggy whip makers and button makers guild? It’s like if we could just bring them back things would change. Yeah they would, not necessarily for the better.

DanZee (profile) says:


The issue of free news versus paid news is more of a newspaper cultural thing. Paid newspapers have always looked down their noses at free “advertisers” as traditional newspapers would call them. But the free newspapers is actually the only segment of the news market that’s growing. They can be hyper local with their stories and their ads. But the paid newspapers are still fighting the notion of giving away their product for free and it could be their downfall.

Also, I know many journalism graduates who couldn’t get work at traditional newspapers and are writing online instead. Does that make them any less journalists? You can be a journalist without working for a newspaper.

Heatblizzard (profile) says:

Two versions of online news

There needs to be two versions of online news.

A paid one where there is no ads whatsoever and you can view everything including archives and a free version that does have ads with a soft reminder to upgrade in order to remove ads every few articles you read.

It actually was proven that revenue and readership both increased when the New York Times got rid of their paywall and now they are saying the complete opposite.

What a bunch of dirty liars!

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