Please pay us for our news — please?

by Mathew on February 5, 2009 · 6 comments

As the financial pressures on newspapers continue to increase, the chorus of voices calling out for a new kind of payment scheme grow louder and louder. Some, like New York Times writer David Carr, have argued that newspapers should be able to concoct some form of “iTunes for news” that would allow them to pool their resources and charge users for their content (provided they get a waiver from the anti-trust authorities, of course). Others — including Carr’s boss Bill Keller, in a recent interview — have mused aloud about whether they couldn’t just re-erect the old pay wall and convince some people to pay for the news that way.

The latest voices to add themselves to this chorus are Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News and veteran journalist and author Walter Isaacson, writing in Time magazine. Bykofsky wrote a piece that managed to hit pretty much every highlight (or lowlight) of the crotchety old newspaperman genre: bloggers can’t replace journalists, every other outlet copies the news from newspapers, and if it wasn’t for the darn Internet we would all be a lot better off. Isaacson is less crotchety, but still thinks that advertising isn’t a suitable business model (even though it has been the driving force behind the newspaper business for half a century or so) He and Bykofsky both think maybe micro-payments are the way to go (and the latter recommends a few lawsuits aimed at Google, just for good measure).

As Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist points out (along with a few others), this entire argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry. Newspapers have *never* been paid directly by readers for the news. When readers pay for a paper at the box or at the store or by subscription, they are paying for a small fraction of the content in the newspaper — maybe the first half a dozen pages or so, for a large metropolitan daily. Everything else is paid for by advertising. What newspapers have been in the business of doing is aggregating attention and influence, which they then transfer to advertisers in return for cash and other items of value.

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab)

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