Walter Isaacson, ex-managing editor of Time magazine and current CEO of the Aspen Institute yesterday addressed the current conundrum of the printed press: how to make money. The crux of the dilemma is that printed news costs money, yet identical content online is given out for free. This combined with a decrease in advertising revenue due to the global economic crisis has left many newspapers and magazines struggling.
In a Time piece entitled 'How to save your newspaper', Walter Isaacson bluntly reveals his attitude to the printed press; "Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it." His logic is indisputable; very few people would pay for that which they can have for free.
Isaacson is struck by the irony of the situation; news publications have a higher readership that ever when you consider both print and online figures, yet they have never been more under threat. He links the problem back to the online advertising boom which at the time looked like its revenues would be more than sufficient to carry both online and print editions of any newspaper.
He considers the traditional revenue structure of the printed press; newsstand sales, subscription and advertising. Comparing the three aspects to the legs of a stool Isaacson points out that with the current heavy reliance placed upon the ever-weakening third leg (advertising), the stool can't possibly stand.
Over at the BBC, money correspondent Graeme McAulay takes a similar train of thought over the state of the industry. He reflects that "after a slow start, most newspapers are now embracing the web as a platform for reaching readers, but it seems it is even harder to make profits from online publishing than from old-fashioned newsprint." He blames the dependency of publications on advertising combined with the entire cyber world of available advertising space. But McAulay also sees the positive in the online empire: he likes the multimedia opportunities that have now opened up and the variety this gives to news reporting.
So those are the problems. But the solutions? As many people have recently, Isaacson muses over the options. Free newspapers, are "morally abhorrent" according to Time co-founder Henry Luce. They take the newspaper's first loyalty away from its readers and towards its advertisers, and Isaacson finds the method "self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue."
He suggests that publications move online-only, or simply try to ride out the rough patch. He advocates both methods - but only because the industry needs "a variety of competing strategies." They "still make a publication completely beholden to its advertisers." Looking back over the gradual progression of publications to free online websites and away from paid for service over the years, Isaacson comments that "the Web got caught up in the ethos that information wants to be free".
So Isaacson's hopes for the future rest with payment for content. But that returns back to the initial problem of why readers would pay for content that they can find online in other publications. However Murdoch's decision to keep the Wall Street Journal's online service paid for resulted in a 7% increase in subscriptions in 2008, whereas the New York Times who dropped their paid for service are most definitely struggling - whether the two are related or not is an entirely different debate.
The conclusion he comes to is micro-payment. An iTunes style method, that allows readers to pay for an article, an edition or even a monthly system in a quick and simple manner. It works (to some extent) for the music industry, Isaacson reasons. "This would not only offer a lifeline to traditional media outlets but also nourish citizen journalists and bloggers. They have vastly enriched our realms of information and ideas, but most can't make much money at it."
The idea of paying for what we use is taken for granted in so many other aspects of life, the online news industry has somehow changed this. As a result, the printed press is suffering across the board. Isaacson concludes "Charging for content forces discipline on journalists: they must produce things that people actually value. I suspect we will find that this necessity is actually liberating. The need to be valued by readers -- serving them first and foremost rather than relying solely on advertising revenue -- will allow the media once again to set their compass true to what journalism should always be about."