Friday, April 22, 2011
When the Most Valuable Commodity Is Free
For most of the 1980s, I was an editor at a daily newspaper, and the management spent a lot of time trying to figure out why our circulation was stagnant or declining. The one answer that never would have occurred to any of us was that people didn’t want to pay for the newspaper.
As it was, we were practically giving it away. Monthly subscriptions at the beginning of that decade were less than $4, which came to about 15 cents a day. For years the industry rule of thumb was that revenue from subscriptions and single-copy sales should cover the cost of the paper and ink needed to produce the paper, and advertising would cover the labor and overhead.
With the surge in commodities prices in the late 1970s, sales were no longer covering the paper and ink, but we were cautious about raising prices. To the extent it was feasible to do so, we wanted to keep the newspaper affordable to just about everyone.
Along came the Internet, which did a “shock and awe” number on the entire industry. One of the things it proved was that the problem of declining newspaper readership had little to do with the content newspapers were offering, which is what we obsessed about in the 1980s. More people than ever before are reading newspapers today, but they’re doing it online, where they don’t have to shell out even small change for the privilege.
The website for our local county-seat daily generates by far the most hits of any website based in the county. Yesterday’s paper had a full-page promotional ad trumpeting the fact that the site generates 395,000 unique hits per month. Paid subscriptions to the dead-tree version are just under 23,000.
Paradoxically, those 23,000 print readers are worth more to local advertisers than all those web readers, many of whom had found one story while Googling and are in no position to buy anything at a local store. The person who figures out how to make serious money from a newspaper’s web site will be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.
Recently The New York Times announced that it would begin charging for use of its news website. After a certain number of visits, a user would have to sign up for pay-per-view. From any rational perspective, this is a sane and sensible move. After all, Safeway doesn’t give away milk, bacon and eggs. The Times’ news coverage and commentary is, by any standard, a superior product of considerable value. It takes a large number of talented and highly paid people to produce. Of course we should pay something if we want it.
Almost nobody else sees the issue that way. Perhaps because newspapers have been giving away online news for so long, people have become obstinate about getting it free. We live in the so-called information age, yet good information has almost no cash value. How did it come to pass that the most valuable commodity of all is expected to be free?
I worry about the long-term consequences, because one thing the Internet hasn’t changed is the reality that it takes time and money to put together good information on complex issues. If that cost can’t be recovered, news operations have no choice but to produce an inferior product for less. Already, I read about and see for myself web sites that pay writers a pittance to generate a high volume of stories or rely on unskilled volunteer or low-paid help to fill their space. Do we really want our knowledge of the world to be provided by amateurs? You get what you pay for.