The rapid and messy evolution in communications is leaving many worried. People are dropping newspaper subscriptions and flocking to the Internet commons for their "free" news, not realizing that newspapers continue to pay for the production of news. This is resulting in bankruptcy for many, if not most newspapers.
What to do? In her testimony at the recent Senate hearings on this subject, Arianna Huffington envisioned a "hybrid future" of nonprofit newspapers and online news services paid for by subscribing entities -- entities in the form of online news sites such as the HuffingtonPost, which already pays news services such as the Associated Press every time they post an article from a news service. In turn, the Huffington Post earns revenue through online advertising. But can this system ultimately generate enough revenue to adequately support all the news generating sources out there? Will the system provide an economically secure livelihood for talented investigative reporters, so that the trade continues to attract an adequate number of them?
Meanwhile, "advertising has not moved online as [fast as] eyeballs have," as Ms. Huffington so aptly noted. Therein lies the crux. Until online advertising adequately finances the production of news, how are news services to survive? We propose the creation of a symbiotic relationship between newspapers on the one hand, and the Internet on the other. Here's how it would work.
All newspapers online would be free only to those who are currently subscribed to at least one major, local newspaper. When subscribing to a newspaper, the newspaper could collect email addresses of all those belonging to a specific subscribing home address (not more than, say, 6 per address, to prevent fraud) and give all of them a specific password that allows them online access to all newspapers. Newspapers could quickly check a central online registry that verifies them as subscribers. When a subscribing customer clicks on a link to another newspaper's article or website, the newspaper will check the customer's eligibility and then email the customer a direct link. This might not fully protect against unfair sharing, but it will discourage perpetrators who would have to manually forward links from their addresses and risk breaking laws to do so.
Newspapers worldwide could form and support an international organization that maintains the registry, and serve as a forum for maintaining reporting standards. By supporting the commons of the newspapers locally, subscribers would be rewarded with access to the global news commons online. Subscribers would receive a paper copy of their local newspaper to assuage advertisers worried about apathy toward internet advertisements. Those who cannot afford a subscription will avail themselves, as they always have, of library subscriptions, both in paper form and on library computers. A similar model can be created for magazines. In this way, all communities will be supporting the basic source of reporting -- the newspapers and news services.
Drawbacks of this mechanism? Internetters will not be able to smoothly surf around for news. True, but it will be much cheaper and smoother than the alternative of paying every time you click open an article. Developing an international regulatory organization of newspapers will be no small task, and neither will the development and enforcement of anti-piracy laws. Yes, but if these are the costs of maintaining a global network of gathering and disseminating news, then the price is relatively cheap.