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Can Web subscriptions save the newspaper business?
April 30, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Re Straight Dope Chicago about the future of journalism:

Interesting.

I think we would be well served if journalists formed worker-cooperatives and charged subscriptions for access to their Web sites. While wiki-like news and opinions are great, there should still be a core of investigative reporters and editors. Each organization could find a geographical area or specialized field to work in, and could post its biases and preferences (such as preserving the status quo, returning to the past, progressing into the future, et cetera).

While most of us prefer to read ink on paper, that technology seems less economically and ecologically feasible compared to digital production and distribution. Besides, many more organizations and individuals can participate online and more perspectives are available. Still, any news organization needs a professional core staff to produce a consistent, quality product. If subscriptions gained acceptance among a large number of readers, the rates might be low, and distracting and corrupting advertisements could be eliminated.

Eh?

— Ishmael, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

No offense, Ishmael. But my reaction is: Meh.

A common fantasy among journalists is: If only we'd started charging for online news when we first launched our Web sites! If only we could start charging now! Ain't gonna happen, and thank God. But don't worry about the news business. While the two-inch-thick Sunday paper is destined for oblivion, the news media of the future aren't going to consist solely of bloggers in their underwear. Professional newsgathering will survive, and it'll be paid for by distracting and corrupting advertisements — and thank God for that, you Bolshevik. Nonetheless, I think we'd agree on one point: The news organizations of the future will be vastly different from the ones we're used to. I won't claim to know exactly how things are going to turn out, but twenty bucks (and 14 years of experience in online information and wisecrack delivery) says the following is pretty close.

You won't have to pay. Do a bit of Googling and you can find plenty of reasons why subscriptions, "micropayments," and so on won't work. These boil down to (a) they're impractical, and (b) they're stupid. In my opinion, (b) is the more compelling argument.  What we might call the public broadcasting model (which is what subscriptions amount to) can sorta work, don't get me wrong. However, judging from the examples immediately at hand — I cast no aspersions — you're not going to become one of the titans in your field.

We've had some experience along these lines at the Straight Dope with our message board, which I'm happy to nominate as a Harvard Business Review case study. The relevant facts about the SDMB are as follows:

  • It's extraordinarily and enduringly popular. Started on America Online in ~1995 and later ported to the Web, the SDMB drew 155,517 visitors this past month, who viewed an astonishing 6,210,091 pages. (Actually a dropoff for us; the number has been as high as 7.6 million.) Some of our users have been with us since the first couple weeks after we flipped on the switch; we've had moderators from Amsterdam and Mumbai. Stories of people meeting future spouses/paramours on the board have ceased to occasion comment.

  • Impressive numbers notwithstanding, for years we couldn't figure out a way to make the SDMB generate a dime. Finally at a meeting one day, Mike Lenehan, my first editor, said, "We could charge!" My immediate thought was: I should have beaned this guy with an eraser instead of that brick. However, lacking an alternative plan, we tried it. To everyone's surprise, it worked. Several thousand people paid good money for the privilege of posting, and paid again when their subscriptions ran out. (The great majority of our visitors are non-posting lurkers, in case you're wondering about the numerical disparity; merely reading the board has always been free.) For years we pulled in a tidy sum of cash each month.

But here's the thing. It was a tidy but non-growing sum of cash. What's more, the previously steady increase in visitors flattened out. Tiring of convent life, we decided to rejoin the real world and discontinued subscriptions last August, shrewdly timing this to coincide with the current economic collapse. (Being the world's smart human is one thing; having a head for business is something else.) Visitor growth immediately resumed its upward climb.

In short, subscriptions are self-limiting. But that's only half the story. The other half is this: Your content — that term is always going to grate — is your own best advertisement. The Straight Dope, again, is a good example. (The Straight Dope is a good example of a lot of things.) My online archive, consisting of the totality of human knowledge distilled into convenient 800-word chunks, has always been available for free — currently more than 2,800 columns.  We make no effort to promote this, and why should we? Whenever people Google the questions that really bug them, inevitably we pop up. As a result — I'm looking at quantcast now — we drew 845,700 visitors last month. Chicagotribune.com pulled in 2.7 million, which, granted, is more. However, the Trib is part of a multibillion-dollar corporation that employs thousands (well, it used to be thousands; what it is after all the layoffs I hesitate to say). TSD employs a few steadfast disciples and me. Lesson: If you're producing a quality editorial product, put it out there gratis. You want the world to know.

The online news media of the future will make their money through advertising. You're thinking: the Master is on drugs. Everybody knows nobody is making money on online advertising, or anyway not enough to cover the losses on the print side. I concede the revenue model, as the business majors says, remains a work in progress. However, give it time. Little Ed and I spent a diverting couple hours recently with Adrian Holovaty of everyblock.com, about whom I recently gushed. Adrian has much to be said in his favor: (a) he lives in a garden apartment in Lake View and worries about the real estate market; (b) he plays a pretty fair guitar; and (c) he's not, based on brief observation, a flaming sphincter, unlike some other Chicago products one might name.

More pertinently for this discussion, he's got the future figured out, at least at a high level of generality. I refer to hyperlocal information distribution. (You'll notice I don't say hyperlocal news distribution, the significance of which will become momentarily apparent.) I was sufficiently impressed that I went home and spoke to Ms. Adams. Babe, I said, I think I've found an investment opportunity. Can we spare a million bucks?

Women can be such wet blankets sometimes. I'm also obliged to concede that everyblock.com has numerous competitors. All the more corroboration for my larger point: multiple parties have now had essentially the same insight, namely, that the ability to easily ascertain everything of interest about your immediate environment will be the foundation of tomorrow's local news media. Moreover — and here we arrive at the crux of the matter — if you can distribute news hyperlocally, you can distribute advertising the same way. Although advertising is an inadequate term; let's call it paid content. (Don't worry, it'll be readily identifiable paid content, which you'll want to read for largely the same reason people watch the Super Bowl for the commercials: because they are, and it is, interesting.) Therein lie the seeds of a fortune — no doubt several fortunes. Whoever makes the first one will have solved the fundamental problem of converting a good idea into a mass-market phenomenon, which mark my words will involve something that on first hearing sounds completely inane. (Think twitter.) But we need speak no more of that now.

Trained journalists will have their place in the news media of the future. Unfortunately, a lot of them won't get paid for it, or at least won't get paid very much — although how is that different from now? I've written already about Gapers Block, the Chicago-centric Web publication that relies on a network of volunteer contributors. Here's another example.

Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University. However, that's not why I know about him. He also writes a blog about journalism — but that's not why I know about him either. I heard of him because he's an inveterate twitterer. Twitter, as Jay was far quicker than me to grasp, is the premier example in our time of (again, on first hearing) a crackbrained, waste-of-electrons technology that can be put to good ends. Jay calls what he does mindcasting, a rather lah-di-dah term for a simple process: he sends out links to articles he finds interesting. Most of these, I gather, are articles he found out about from other twitterers — Jay evidently has developed quite the network. All the articles are about current issues in journalism. This may not rank with the Cubs' prospects on the list of things the average person obsesses about, but if you're concerned about a profession that seems to be circling the drain — and 14,881 people (the current number of Jay Rosen followers) evidently are — an hour reading what this guy links to will bring you up to speed.

Three things to note about all this. First, Professor Rosen is performing one of the classic functions of journalism: he's passing along useful information. Second, he's doing it for free. I presume he gets paid for his NYU job, but, insofar as one can discover from distant inspection, he doesn't make any money from twittering. (If he is, I'll hope he'll explain how to the rest of us.) Third, he's a professional. We see in him a prototype of the journalist of the future —  diligently pursuing worthwhile work for nonmonetary compensation. Mark you, I don't say no compensation; one assumes Jay gets a kick out of being a twitter god. Perhaps someday he'll derive more tangible profit. The point is, whatever he gets out of his online labors, it's enough to keep him in the game. The news business won't be solely the province of amateurs.

So my message to you, Ishmael, is this: Be of good cheer. The local news sources of tomorrow will be profit-making, professionally-run, mostly online enterprises that will nonetheless be, at a certain level of analysis, cooperative ventures in which the producers and consumers of the content will be inextricably mixed — indeed, to a large extent they'll be one and the same. Disconcerting as this may be to those of us in the business, it opens up a whole new world for everyone else. Potentially — I start getting dreamy-eyed here — we'll come out of this with a more engaged citizenry. I know, 50-some years ago people had high hopes for television and you see how that worked out. But you can dream.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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