The demise of Times Select (see previous post) has served as a milestone moment for the continuing debate over the future of news online. Kara Swisher says it’s inevitable now that her paper, the Wall Street Journal, will follow the Times and tear down its pay gate. Jay Rosen offers a good overview of the discussion. His conclusion is optimistic:
I think real value is in weaving yourself into the Web. “Conversation” is blogger’s shorthand for that larger idea…. Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users. It means link rot cut to zero, playing for the long haul in Web memory and more blogs because they are Web-sticky.
If you read me here you know I agree. But of course there’s a “but.” And the “but” is all about money. The “but” is something that many of the believers in the bloggy future of news don’t always confront head on.
When you accept that the future for news on the Web is open and does not include much subscription revenue, you also have to accept that your revenue online isn’t going to match your old revenue; it won’t support as many full-time staff. Maybe it will improve steadily, but I don’t think it will ever reach the equivalent of print.
This is basic economics: in most cities, newspapers were monopolies or near-monopolies on paper for the last few decades. They’ll never be monopolies online. Or maybe a very small number (2 or 3) newspapers will become near-monopolies online by establishing their brand and authority — surviving into the Web age while the rest of their peers die off, as the Web replicates for the entire U.S. the same process of consolidation that happened, city by city, in the second half of the 20th century.
I write this with some experience from the trenches at Salon, where we had what I would consider hands-on, ahead-of-the-curve experience in trying to support an online-only newsroom with online-only revenue. For all Salon’s quality and achievements, that has always been an uphill fight.
Institutions like the Times will face the battle with all sorts of resources Salon lacked. Still: the near-monopoly newspaper always had subscription revenue, display ad revenue and classified revenue to bank on. Google ads can’t match that today, and probably not for a long, long time. Display ads placed on pages readers find through Google are better. But right now, all of the online advertising an open newspaper Web site can garner is at best icing on the old three-layer cake. If that’s all you need, great. But each of those three old revenue streams has already started to dwindle, and if you take the long view and accept that they’re all likely to vanish eventually, then you face inevitable shrinkage.
None of this is any argument for simply behaving as if the Web weren’t here and rolling up a drawbridge against change. It is instead an exhortation for both sides of the whither-journalism debate — the blogosphere and citizen’s journalism believers, and the old-school newsroom brigade — to come to terms with the bottom line of the journalism business today.
We know that the old newspaper business is on the way out. (We don’t know how fast but we know where things are heading.) We knew how to pay for newsrooms under the old business. But we still don’t have much of a clue how to take a newspaper-scale newsroom and support it on the Web.
Given all this, I think it’s important not to sugarcoat things. Even a well-managed transition from print to Web will diminish newspapers and shrink newsrooms. It’s understandable that newspaper workers are fearful: their jobs are indeed on the line.
If their profession has a future — and of course it does — the answers for how to support that future are unlikely to come from the sort of old-line newsroom management that gave us Times Select and so many other ill-fated big media schemes on the Web. It will come instead from some of the thousand and one little experiments in the Web journalism business that are flowering today.
There are no revisions for this post.