Online News: To Pay Or Not to Pay?

Regarding the previous post, I had no idea there were so many of these conferences on the future of journalism. My brain hasn’t been saturated on the subject, so I still I found some value in listening to the News Media Workshop event at The Federal Trade Commission, which ran from Dec.1-2. If you’re not familiar with much of the debate raging among the journalistic establishment over how to save the newspaper industry, it’s worth watching the entire two-day workshop available for download at the FTC website here. The most interesting fireworks was the war of words between News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and Huffington Post founder and columnist Arianna Huffington. Both their speeches – in the morning session of Dec. 1 – are quite provocative.

Murdoch and Huffington represent two sides of a battle between those in old media who think people should pay to read online news content (Murdoch) and those in new media who think it’s naive that people are going to pay, and that more innovative business models need to be created (Huffington). More specifically, Murdoch and others have accused news aggregators like the Huffington Post and Google of stealing content from online news sites. But aggregators say what they are doing is fair use.

Many in the old media – newspapers and magazines – worry that if people don’t pay for news online, then where are publications going to get the resources to pay reporters? They blame the Internet for much of the turmoil in the industry right now – bankruptcies, reporter layoffs, declining circulation. But those in new media argue that newspapers were in trouble long before the Internet became ubiquitous.

I can understand the concerns of Murdoch and other old-time news publishers. Citizen reporters working for free bring a much needed diversity to journalism, and are a valuable addition to the industry. But there does need to be some accountability in journalism, and that can only come from people who are paid well as professionals. Reporting shouldn’t just be a hobby. On the other hand, I think Murdoch is probably fighting a losing battle. Yes, his Wall Street Journal is proving to be successful at charging for some of its content. But, the Journal’s audience is largely affluent businesspeople who can afford subscriptions. Most people just aren’t going to pay for something that can so easily be had for free. A recent study showed that less than half of Americans are willing to pay for online news content. For people under 30, I’ll bet that figure is much lower.

Besides, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to force people to always pay for information. Knowledge is power, and we don’t want a society with information haves and have-nots, where good information is always offered for a premium. The Internet represents freedom, and I love going around the world on the Web reading about events happening in far off places. Restricting that access to many based on ability to pay would be a terrible blow to that freedom. New media should use its best efforts to come up with better ways to monetize the content, and compensate professional reporters, all the while keeping access as free (or at least as dirt cheap) as possible. For a comprehensive rundown of emerging business models being used for online journalism, watch the FTC’s New Media Workshop, or read this study, The Reconstruction of American Journalism by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson.