My apologies for not being right on top of this earlier in the week. I just had a chance to read Steven Brill’s no-longer-confidential memo, “Turning Around the Times — and Journalism,” posted on Romenesko, and I’ve got a few observations.
First, a bit of praise for Brill, who, near the beginning of his career, wrote one of the bravest books I’ve ever read — “The Teamsters,” about an organization that, at the time of publication (1979), was more a criminal enterprise than it was a union. I don’t know how Brill found the courage to start his car in the morning.
And though I’ve weighed in several times (here and here) on why it doesn’t make sense to think that newspapers will be able to charge a fee to their online customers, I understand the problem. Even though what you pay for a print edition doesn’t even cover the cost of manufacturing and distributing it, the fact — and the problem — is that print advertising is far more lucrative than online advertising. Never is a long time, but it’s beginning to look like Web advertising may never support the public-interest journalism on which a healthy, self-governing society depends.
So I’m sympathetic to, though not supportive of, Brill’s ideas for charging online customers. It’s possible that it might even work for the Times because of its unique appeal. There are probably quite a few people who’d pay for access to the Times, but not for anything else. And therein lies one of problems with his plan, though by no means the only one.
Here’s the biggest drawback I see in Brill’s proposal: it would end blogging, as valuable a journalistic form as has been developed since the inverted pyramid. A really good blog post might link to three, four or five news stories — maybe more. A really good blogger might skim through 10, 15 or 20 stories in the course of synthesizing them into that post. Finally, that blogger might look at many dozens of news sources on a regular or semi-regular basis.
Obviously, bloggers — most of whom are doing it for no money — cannot afford to subscribe to dozens of online newspapers and magazines. Even if they could, they want to know that when they link to particular stories, their readers will be able to follow the links and read those stories as well. How many online news sources is a typical blog reader supposed to subscribe to?
Micropayments, which Brill also mentions, get around this. Properly implemented, they’re deducted automatically. But though 10 cents an article might seem reasonable, do you really want to pay $1 to read a well-constructed blog post and follow all the links? Of course you don’t. No one is going to do such a thing.
Brill says that if the Times charges $1 per month to each of its 20 million unique monthly visitor, that would generate $240 million a year. I’ll withhold my sarcasm, because this is math, and experience tells me that I could be wrong. But it strikes me that Brill has convinced himself that the Times could get a buck out of every person who, at some point during the course of a month, clicks on a link to a Times story that he found via a search engine. Intuitively, it seems to me that they’re not going to do that, and I’m pretty sure Brill would concede the point if he’d think about it.
The only folks who are going to pay $1 a month are the journalism geeks like me, who actually prop open their laptops at breakfast and read a good chunk of the Times online. And I suspect the number of people who actually read the paper that way is far, far smaller than 20 million.
Case in point: Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma told me last fall that 84 percent of visitors to the paper’s Web site come in via search engines, aggregators and blogs. Let’s say it’s the same for the Times. Let’s say you could get every one of the 16 percent who come in through the front door to pay $1 a month. That’s $38.4 million for the year, not $240 million.
I realize that my critique would appear to leave no way out of the dilemma in which the Times and other newspapers find themselves. I happen to think there may be more life left in the print edition than we all imagined a couple of years ago. I’d raise the price by quite a bit, maybe offer some premium, print-only features (heresy, I know, but worth thinking about) and perhaps offer those well-heeled customers access to some special services.
A solution? No. But it might work as a holding action until we can figure out what’s next.