Media Matters: Dean Singleton proposes a new private club system for Utah readers.
During a speech yesterday, Singleton said that within a year, newspapers that are owned by his company, MediaNews, will start charging for content. Among those newspapers is the The Salt Lake Tribune.
This statement was treated as some sort of breaking news by KSL-TV, despite Singleton having already made this announcement months ago. Also, Singleton is not alone with this proposal, nor will he be the first corporation to actually start charging for what they consider valuable material.
In reality, publishers have wanted to do this for years. Free content on the web drives them nuts. They are old-school businessman, not Web 2/3/4.0 practitioners who believe free is the new currency. If they can't charge for their content, they are still going to make people pay by slapping annoying ads on every page, forcing readers to click through multiple pages for one story, and generally irritate the reader in the same way that the black ink on their newspapers drives anyone trying to keep a house clean batty.
The problem with charging is not convincing people to pay for something. It's convincing people to pay for something is not worth much more than what is available for free. This is not to devalue the work of journalists, who are superior to most bloggers because they actually do the legwork required to report facts, and their copy is (sometimes) cleaner. But their work is generally not strong enough to make it valuable enough to charge for, because if it were, they would not work at an average metro daily. They would work in magazines, in books, or for one of the premier papers.
If this were different, it would be great. Newspapers provide an important service to the community, and are an important civic organization. I love newspapers, I have worked for newspapers since I was 15 years old, and despite my best efforts, will probably be working for a news organization, in some fashion, for the rest of my life.
I also know that, barring some lucky strike of lightning that makes my byline a brand name, very few people will ever pay for my reporting and writing. And the same can be said for pretty much any newspaper hack at any newspaper. So newspapers, if they charge, have to leverage their brand, but unlike 25 years ago, those brands are simply strong or unique enough for a subscription model that could sustain their overhead.
So what will work? There are ideas, none of them mine. Newspapers could become non-profits, they could co-op their work with corporate sponsorships, or they could search for new advertising revenue that is more hyper-local in nature. All of those are being tried, in various ways, at various places. Where there have been successes, the circumstances are usually very unique, the personnel stronger than average, and the sacrifices of the principals (often laid-off reporters or editors) great.
In the end, corporate media will survive, in some way. But it will not be the media we know today. And while optimists are confident that the void left by newspapers will be filled, I'm not so confident. Local bloggers are great, and they can do a good job of focusing in on local issues. But for the most part, they are local issues that interest them, and their coverage is often skewed towards their opinion. The great benefit newspapers provide for local coverage is that, more often than not, the reporters they are paying to cover, say, a city council are disinterested observers. There is no bias because the reporter simply doesn't care which side wins. And that provides what may be the greatest value to readers, but sadly, it's not valuable enough.