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The Media Tragedy of the Commons

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The Tragedy of the Commons

In an article in Science magazine in 1968, Garrett Hardin described a situation in which people, each acting independently in their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest to destroy the value of that resource.

The idea of the commons refers to farmers sharing a common plot of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. It is in each farmer's interest to put more and more cows onto the land, even if the capacity of the common is exceeded and eventually there isn't enough grass to sustain everyone's herds. The farmer receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all farmers come to the same individually rational economic decision, the common will be destroyed to the detriment of all.

Newspapers Go Online

Beginning in 1996, major newspapers (the Washington Post and the New York Times) decided to extend the reach of their content and began to offer free online versions of their papers. At the time this seemed like a good idea, a way to make a little extra money. You know, just as the farmers put more and more cows out to graze on the commons without thinking ahead about the long-term consequences of their actions. And eventually all newspapers and virtually all magazines followed the lead of these venerable newspapers and offered their content free online.

Of course, what they were doing is reinforcing the internet hacker's mantra that "information wants to be free" and training everyone that they could get the information and content they wanted online free. Why subscribe to the New York Times or Washington Post when you get the content free online? Plus, environmentally sensitive people realized they could not only get their news free but could also save trees and cut down on waste by reading their newspapers online. What a good, green deal.

Newspapers, magazines, and other news organizations created a tragedy of the commons of sorts by unthinkingly conditioning people not to pay for their trusted content.

The Current Tragedy

Just like the farmers in medieval times who took too much advantage of a good grazing thing and faced an overgrazed dust bowl, newspapers and other news content providers today face an ever diminishing amount of advertising dollars. It isn't merely pessimism; the glass really is half full, and it's getting less full each passing month.

And the recession isn't the problem. On March 15, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media report which indicated that http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_intro.php "in 2009 newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26 percent during the year, which brings the total loss over the last three years to 43 percent."

What's the Solution?

To solve the problem of overgrazing in earlier times, there were several solutions, one being government intervention in the form of passing laws or instituting regulations that punished offending overgrazers. But bureaucracy comes with government regulation, and we have plenty of bureaucrats and regulations, and both of them don't work much. So, no thanks.

Another way of handling the problem is with non-government sanctions, which require collaboration and cooperation among the majority. For example, in some communities that have common grazing land, farmers and herders agree to put up a fence and a gate and have someone man the gate at all times. They agree, for example, that three cows per family will keep the common viable and anyone who wants to graze more than three cows isn't allowed in the gate.

Modern media companies can't collaborate legally (it's called collusion) and agree that everyone has to charge for content and set a minimum price what they will charge (it's called price fixing).

But here's what they can do: the New York Times, the , the Wall Street Journal, all big city newspapers, the New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Weekly Standard, the Nation, Time, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, and all quality news and information websites and blogs, such as ProPublica, and Talking Points Memo can form a Quality Publications Association (GPA) and charge fairly hefty dues based on circulation or web traffic.

Members of the QPA can't all agree to charge for their content or what to charge. However, they all have the future of their publications on their minds. They are all concerned about long-term survival. They know what's good for themselves.

Therefore, one of them that is not charging now has to bite the bullet and charge for content (the Wall Street Journal already does charge for some content) and the rest have to voluntarily fall into line and charge a similar amount. Once all the quality publications start charging, the dominoes will fall and the others in the association will start charging for content.

The QPA would merge with the National Newspaper Association and other similar associations and can then figure out cool bundles and discounts and loyalty programs. For example, I could pay The New York Times $200 a year or pay the QPA $600 and get access to all the QPA members content. I could also earn loyalty points for clicking on ads on QPA members' advertisers' content. Why not let The New York Times make some money when I click on an ad it carries rather than let Google make money when I click on one of its search-term ads? I'd rather see The Times make some money than for Google to get even richer.

The QPA could run a national ad campaign on all of its sites, newspapers, and magazines and on television, the theme of which would be "You get what you pay for." The campaign would make the point that just like with insurance or cars or fishing rods, with information to get quality stuff, you've got to pay for it. The purpose of the campaign would be to educate people that information theoretically may want to be free, but good information costs money to collect, so if people want reliable information, they will have to pay for it.

It's an education and pricing problem. Apple showed that most people would pay $.99 for a song rather than steal it if it were easy to do so. The QPA and its members would have to fuss around for a couple of years to find the right price points and bundles, but it could be done.

The education problem is stickier. But the QPA could run a commercial showing a rich-looking man with red suspenders, cuff-linked shirts, and a bow tie ranting about the need for national security and keeping the Army in Afghanistan and then calling his lawyer to set up an offshore tax shelter to avoid paying income taxes. The tag line would be "What's wrong with this picture? Remember, you get what you pay for. If you want good stuff you have to pay for it."