01/02/2012 11:28 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2012

So Much for the Penny Press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, the New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today's Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or "rubber rooms" filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there's less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what's really at work, of course, is that there's much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price -- by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That's because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media -- rich while it lasted -- was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That's how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there's abundant competition. That's what confounds legacy media folks: "If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?" Because you're operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You're still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That's what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn't sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day -- a century ago -- newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that the Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 -- because it wanted scale.