By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

No one thinks “news wants to be free”

Who wants news to be free? Not me. I want someone — consumers, advertisers, some rich guy who wants to feed his ego — to pay through the nose, and thus ensure lucrative employment for journalists present and future, especially my students.

So I was startled this morning when I read a commentary in the Boston Globe by Boston University journalism-department chairman Lou Ureneck in which he disparaged unnamed someones who apparently believe no one should pay for the news:

The “news wants to be free” contingent doesn’t understand how markets work, and its members aren’t relying on news-organization salaries to put food on their tables or their children through college. “Free” is an ideological position, not a sustainable system for the production of expensive journalism.

Who are these dastardly ideologues? Ureneck doesn’t say. And I would go so far as to add that there aren’t any — adjusting, of course, for the occasional fringe character channeling the voices coming to him through his tinfoil hat.

But Ureneck calls for online pay walls, and I suspect those of us who oppose such things are the target of his “news wants to be free” observation. The reality, though, is that we don’t oppose pay walls out of ideology. Rather, it’s that they would destroy the value of the sharing culture that defines the Web. More to the point, they wouldn’t work, because there would continue to be a host of free, good-enough alternatives.

I’m all in favor of news organizations — especially newspapers — doing anything they can to raise revenue: charging as much as the market will bear for the print edition; coming up with new, paid delivery platforms for e-readers, cellphones and the like; offering online extras for a fee; and, in the case of non-profits, pursuing grant money and user donations.

Does that make me a member of “the ‘news wants to be free’ contingent”? Obviously not. Moreover, I don’t think there is one.

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  1. Ureneck’s more interesting point, to me, is that people never used to pay for water or TV, but that marketing taught us to do that. Does that model apply? I think not. Cable TV offered ESPN and CNN and a host of movies you couldn’t get for free. Bottle water offered perceived health benefits.

    Paying for news would be more like Betamax: everyone who’s an “expert” says it’s better, but all the marketing in the world didn’t save it. Plus there’s nobody willing to invest gazillions of dollars in marketing their pay-walled news site. Because the best distribution strategy is givig it away free.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Joel: We could slide right over to satellite radio, now in bankruptcy because of a wide range of “good enough” alternatives — public radio, CD players, iPod jacks, and the like. Back when Red Sox games were on free TV, you couldn’t get anywhere near 162 games. And bottled water isn’t marketed as an alternative to the tap — it’s marketed as a healthy alternative to soda.

  2. Andy Koppel

    Dan – Are you familiar with Chris Anderson’s new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” I recommend reading Malcom Gladwell’s review in the July 6, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. Gladwell is scathing about this very point.

  3. Tut, tut … satellite radio (which I’m listening to right now as well as being a stockholder …) isn’t in bankruptcy due to “good enough” alternatives. I believe Sirius/XM Radio has upwards of 18 million subscribers and is a $2.4 billion (b) company.

    Whether or not it’s going to work is questionable, but right now it’s making many people happy.

    • Dan Kennedy

      John: Four years ago, Jupiter predicted 55 million satellite radio subscribers by 2010.

  4. InsiderNegot

    Gary Trudeau weighs in:

    I don’t believe there’s anything I can do personally to prepare for a post-newspaper future, other than hope that the large media companies will come to their senses and form a gated Web collective along the lines of cable TV. They need to form a news utility, financed by subscription or micropayments because going it alone has been disastrous for all of them.


  5. sammy

    Dan, you keep saying, as you do here:

    “they wouldn’t work, because there would continue to be a host of free, good-enough alternatives.”

    But what exactly are the alternatives to paid newspaper professionals? What TV station, blogger, student-run web site, etc., can duplicate what a local newspaper does every day as a matter of routine: attend committee hearings, go to fires, follow up on fatal crashes, interview members of immigrant churches, get pols’ reactions to bills, check the daily police logs, quiz school leaders about MCAS results, profile local celebrities, report on newly closed companies or firms moving into a community, etc., etc. etc.? There is no alternative that CONSISTENTLY does anything remotely like that.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Sammy: It would not be the same. It would not be as good. But you are making the mistake of confusing all the important things that a newspaper does with what the public is willing to pay for. Besides, there are a number of alternatives that do some of the things that newspapers have traditionally done, and are doing them quite well. I won’t call them free — they’re supported by grants, donations, advertising and the like. But they’re free in the sense that readers don’t have to pay to access them. Three: Imagine, if you will, another, very steep round of downsizing at the Globe. Now imagine WBUR deciding to raise $22 million instead of $20 million (I’m using rough figures, but I’m close), and devoting the extra $2 million to hiring reporters and editors who’ll expand the Web site.

      New Haven Independent. Non-profit, mainly supported by grants. Real journalism.

      The Batavian. A for-profit news site, funded through advertising and already breaking even.

      Are we going to be as well-served as we were in, say, 1986? No. But “free” sites, not connected to newspapers, are already providing some of the coverage you mention in your comment. And they’re going to get stronger and more numerous over time.

  6. Aaron Read

    @John A. Keith: I take XMSirius’s subscriber numbers with a big grain of salt. They’re notorious for overstating their subscriber base by including all the subscriptions that were free giveaways, and thus aren’t generating any revenue.

    I remember hearing that the conversion rate on those freebies is terrible, too…less than 10%, IIRC, but I can’t remember specifics so take that with a grain of salt.

    Anecdotally, of all the people I’ve *personally* known who got a freebie satradio subscription, only ONE ever paid to sign up after the freebie ran out. (he’s a Grateful Dead fan) That’s at least a 1 out of 20 ratio.

    I think XMSirius’s long-term prospects are very, very shaky. They’ve set themselves up to be just as vulnerable to portable web-enabled devices as AM/FM radio is. If AT&T ever manages to actually deliver true 3G-level service to all their iPhone users (something they’re not doing) then both satradio and AM/FM radio are going sink a lot quicker into the proverbial “deep doo-doo”.

  7. sammy

    As good as WBUR is, there is no way it can replace the relentlessly local coverage of every daily newspaper in eastern Mass., northern R.I., and southern N.H. It couldn’t possibly raise enough money to pay for the huge additional payroll of reporters, editors, photogs and videographers needed to do even a halfway decent job.
    As it is, the public model is hurting just paying for what it currently does, hence the layoffs or fear of layoffs at WGBH, etc.
    The Batavia site is great, but I note that it is giving itself away. It can’t possible be raising enough through advertising to keep supporting its staff week after week, month after month, year after year. Right now, fine, while the staff retains its enthusiasm, but let’s see if it is still alive and thriving a year from now. If it makes it, it will have to have found a paying model that works. On line advertising can’t be the answer, or if it is, every newspaper publisher in the world would be desperately trying to learn the Batavia model.

  8. Local Editor

    I think the actual staff at the Batavian is Mr. and Mrs. Howard Owens. If the goal is to make enough money to operate the site, put food on the table and pay the mortgage, the model is fine.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Local Editor: And let me add to what you said by observing that that was the model for hundreds of weekly newspapers across the country before the era of consolidation.

  9. lafcadio mullarkey

    Malcolm Gladwell had a nice analysis of Anderson’s book this summer.

    I read the article in The New Yorker, which I still have a subscription to. Though I cancelled the Globe.

    Anderson may be a plagiarist, and Gladwell pretty effectively takes his argument apart, but he does exist.

  10. Neil

    “And bottled water isn’t marketed as an alternative to the tap — it’s marketed as a healthy alternative to soda.”

    Tell that to the people in Woburn and other locales that have water quality problems that amount to health risks.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Neil: Are you really going to tell me about Woburn? Really? I’m all ears.

      I’m talking about marketing, not toxic waste. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I suspect that when people buy gallons of water at the supermarket, it’s because they’re concerned about what’s coming out of their tap, as was the case in Woburn. But when they buy a bottle of Dasani or Poland Springs at a sporting event or whatever, they see it as an alternative to soda. Or beer.

      Which is the analogy we were talking about when you dropped by.

  11. George Williams

    I just visited the Batavia Daily News website and now I wish there were a site like that for my neighborhood. If I lived in Batavia, I would be a regular visitor to the site. If they could/would do investigative reporting, it seems they would have a regular newspaper site. It would be difficult for me to rationalize paying for access to a news site but the new Globe Reader would be a temptation if the print option gets any more expensive. I think they should be pitching a green alternative (like the credit card companies do) with a “paperless” newspaper. Your town would save money on recycling and you would not have to schlep all those old papers curbside.

    I buy bottled water because it is a convenient delivery system when I am in my car or working in the shop.

  12. InsiderNegot

    The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown responded to a question for what it’s worth:

    Are you still writing print’s obit?

    It’s such a phony war, print versus the Internet. So much of print has one foot in on the Web these days—New Yorker writers blog, Times reporters shoot digital video. And the so-called old lions are turning out wonderful journalism—see our Cheat Sheet, which is agnostic about print or online journalism, on a daily, hourly basis.

  13. Dan — This was interesting reading for us, because today, we made a paid news site after a great deal of debate. Reaction so far (it’s been official for only an hour at this point!) has been mixed.


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