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On Newspapers and Paywalls

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It may be a cliche to write in the Huffington Post that newspaper content should remain free, and I may tick off my friends at newspapers by doing so. But even as an ex-inkstained wretch myself, I couldn't avoid the contradictions contained in this week's report by the American Press Institute: its Newspaper Economic Action Plan.

The basic idea: newspapers should start charging for their content ASAP. Readers, Google, and aggregators including the HuffPost should all pony up. Why? Because newspapers spend money to bring us their reportage. That coverage is important to society. It doesn't come cheap.

The problem with a "we produce something of value and should be paid for it" attitude, though, is that it is just an attitude, one shaped by a sense of grievance and a gut feeling about what is - must be - right and just. This is a terrible way to formulate any kind of complex strategy - George W. Bush made decisions the same way. In this case, the API ignores the real world conditions of journalism, the Internet and e-commerce. Thus this strategy, if pursued, is unlikely to turn out well. I want newspapers and journalism to survive and thrive. And I'm not against charging for some content if it's done right. But even I can see this is crazy.

Start with the API's first recommendation: "Establish a true value for news content online by charging for it." This is a strange formulation. In a market, prices are set by supply and demand, not dictated by producers. The declaration has an anachronistic, command-and-control, almost Marxist feel to it: we control the means of production, we will set the prices. It assumes a kind of monopolistic position that newspapers no longer hold, as much as they might want to. If your starting point is the assumption your product has "value," you'd be wise to take a hard look at exactly what that value is on the open market - not try to spontaneously create a closed, captive one. But the API evidently has not conducted that kind of clear-eyed self-assessment. It sees the economic value of newspaper content as self-evident, of a piece with its perceived social value, and something that must be preserved first, improved upon later.

But the truth is that newspaper journalism has a relatively low market value and its social relevance is in decline. It's still important - we need eyes on government at all levels, investigations, a space for local and national community discussions to play out. (And yes, the HuffPost certainly needs it.) But the form of the newspaper story is stale, and the package it comes in - the selection of the day's news, calendar, arts, classifieds, etc. - is something many people no longer really need because they can get most of it elsewhere. Meanwhile the relative social importance of newspaper stories - as a forum for political debates, say - has also declined due to ever-fragmenting attention, competition, and a loss of credibility that's partly self-inflicted.

The API's answer to this is to double down on existing, loyal newspaper fans: "The real value to newspapers comes from serving ... 'core loyalists,' the group of heavy users who visit a news site about 18 days a month, two to three times a day. They contribute 85 percent of the page views and user sessions." But surely this base is already in decline, unlikely to replaced by younger readers.

These problems are severe. The obvious solution to them is to make a better product - leverage the advantages you have, innovate, create something people really want, and thus make yourself important again - and in the process, figure out how to sell it. The marketplace of the open web is the ideal forum to test this out. (I acknowledge that many or most such tests will result in failure.) The API report makes some gestures toward innovation - but only after enumerating ways to monetize content. Its basic approach is, we've already got a golden goose here, people are stealing our eggs, and we want them back.

That's the other principal problem - the report urges a crackdown on the cribbing of content by Google, aggregators and others: they should pay or cease and desist. There is plenty of abuse of "fair use," and original content is endlessly atomized. Perhaps there are ways to police the egregious cases better and/or generate revenue from "republishing" if all involved are amenable. But is this really a wise foundation for a future-of-newspapers strategy? Here's how the report envisions the politics:

Many citizens and policy makers regard newspapers as an essential part of the American democracy as evidenced by a recent congressional hearing and a spate of conferences. The sustainability of journalism is important to Americans, and thus, there is a public imperative to ensure, and monetize, the survival of professional news organizations in some form.

You can read this two ways. Either the newspaper industry has civic obligation to charge for content, or society itself must recognize the importance of newspaper content and compel politicians to protect it. The first idea is tendentious, the second naive. The public isn't particularly sympathetic to tougher copyright enforcement. The lobbying clout of newspaper publishers and media companies is declining with their corporate valuations. Google has lots of money to spend on its own lobbyists. And the current copyright regime is outdated. When it's reformed, who knows what will happen?

It's not like the API report contains no good ideas. No doubt there are ways to charge for premium content as it suggests, for example. But your average small or medium-sized paper doesn't have much (or any) of that, nor does the API give any examples of it. And if your strategy is shaped by an inflexible set of beliefs and an attitude of entitlement, it's not a recipe for innovation or success. After reading this, I'm more pessimistic than ever about the future of newspapers.