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Antitrust discussions following newspaper execs' Chicago meeting

Antitrust discussions following newspaper execs' Chicago meeting

Last week's "secret" meeting between newspaper publishers in Chicago has prompted much discussion and commentary about the implications of such a meeting, particularly in terms of antitrust laws. According to the AP, the meeting's agenda was titled "Models to lawfully monetize content," and an antitrust lawyer was present, said the Newspaper Association of America, which organised the meeting.

In his article, "How the Obama administration can save newspapers," Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten argues that the way to save US newspapers is to make it easier for them to charge for online content. It seems clear that charging for general news content would have a far greater chance of succeeding if all newspapers were to start to do this simultaneously. The same goes for licensing their content to search engines: it will only be possible if it is an industry wide effort. And such moves are currently illegal, as Rutten points out, under laws barring collusion and price-fixing.

At the US Senate hearings in April publishers urged the Committee to give newspapers an antitrust exemption so that industry leaders could convene to discuss copyrighting from aggregators and charging for content online. However, Carl Shapiro, the antitrust division's chief economist, told the House subcommittee last month that "we do not believe any new exemptions for newspapers are necessary." Rutten believes that News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch is going down the right path by promising to charge online within the next year, and is convinced that "the Obama administration needs to change its mind" on the issue.

Steve Brill, however, seems to think differently. Staci D. Kramer of Paid Content asked him some questions via email on Friday after he gave a presentation on his start-up Journalism Online, which plans to help facilitate charging for online content, at Thursday's meeting. With regards to the idea of an antitrust solution, Brill commented that he thinks "a communal solution is unnecessary and ill-advised, though one might evolve." At the meeting, he stressed that he would only "talk specifics" with individual papers outside such a group setting.

Brill also told Kramer how complicated it was to explain the company's hybrid model to the executives, and to emphasise that it did not involve putting up paywalls around all content. The model would include "lots and lots of sampling" and is based on an 88-91 formula, meaning that publishers can keep 88% of page views and 91% of online ad revenue, "while adding significant online circulation revenues (80 cents to $1.00 x 10% of monthly unique) AND boosting PRINT circ revenue (with bundled offers) while lowering PRINT sub acquisition and retention costs."

Poynter Journalist Rick Edmonds believes that if newspapers are to start charging for online content, they should all be looking to do this in the same general way. "Not the exact structure and pricing but a generally understood business model with some common specifics," he suggests. This idea makes sense, as users will be far more willing to pay via a system that is familiar and easy to understand. But would this mean breaking antitrust laws? Edmonds sees 'vendors' such as Journalism Online or Attributor as offering "an escape hatch to antitrust concerns" and points out that if 250 papers can participate in the Yahoo Partnership which sells online ads, "I can't see the problem with 250 papers syndicating online access with a single vendor."

For newspapers, it does seem more likely that they could be more successful if they work together to come up with a system for charging for content, as it seems that consumers will only be willing to pay if they do not have other options. And maybe a company such as Journalism Online could play the role of mediator and help bypass antitrust laws. Clearly any attempt at price-fixing, for example, would be unfair to the consumer, but is it possible for papers to collaborate in a way that does not put the reader at a disadvantage? It does not seem unreasonable to hope that people will be prepared to pay for some news, especially if money paid helps papers to continue to generate high-quality output.

Source: Paid Content, LA Times, Poynter


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Author

Emma Goodman

Date

2009-06-02 12:10

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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