King Kaufman

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Newspapers: Shut up and charge already

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“I’m all for an antitrust exemption for newspapers so they can all get together and charge. And get their demise over with.”

I tweeted that the other day. Beau Dure of USA Today, who always asks good questions, wondered, via Facebook, “Did a newspaper delivery person knock over your mailbox or something?”

Are you kidding? The delivery person is one of the few people in the newspaper business who actually delivers something of value — a hunk of birdcage liner! Hey that’s pretty good. Only took me a week to think of it.

It’s just that I’m sick of all these panel discussions and secret meetings and statements of purpose about how newspapers are going to get readers to pay for their basic content online, and/or save the print product. It’s like this endless debate about a question that’s been settled. The answer: They’re not. Can we please move on?

Here’s the editor of the Wall Street Journal — which, unlike almost every other newspaper in the country, has content specialized and distinctive enough that people will pay to read it online — complaining about aggregators, especially Google.

“It’s certainly true that readers have been socialised — wrongly I believe — that much content should be free,” the Australian quotes Robert Thomson saying. He’s Australian too so he talks with Brit spelling. “And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognise the value they are trading on that’s created by others.”

Thomson says readers who click to a newspaper story from Google News think they’re reading Google News: “Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator. Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered.”

It sounds ridiculous to me, but when I tweeted about that, several online acquaintances, including Beau, said they’ve seen that phenomenon at work. So OK, I believe it. It happens.

But do those people matter? If you don’t even pay attention to whether you’re reading something on a newspaper’s Web site or on Google News, you’re not likely to become a paying customer of either. I don’t pay enough attention to “American Idol” to know which one of the recent finalists is Kris Allen and which one is Adam Lambert, so I’m not likely to buy either one’s next record. I don’t matter to them. I’m not the customer.

If that’s the future business model for newspapers — to get the people who are too dumb or inattentive to even know what they’re reading to pay for it — well, now you know why I’m ready for them to figure out that this matter has been settled. It’s like listening to someone who talks painfully slowly explaining something you already know.

I don’t know how slowly Thomson talks, but here’s some more from the Australian article:

“Thomson argued aggregators ‘need to be honest in their role as deliverers of other people’s content.’ And as those sites were exploiting the value of mainstream media content, ‘we have to be at least as clever as they are in understanding the value of our own content.’”

Exactly! He and others in our racket act like it’s some kind of vexing mystery, figuring out the value of something, in this case content. But it couldn’t be simpler: Put a price on it. That’s how you “understand the value” of your hooptie when you offer it for sale on Craigslist, right? If you ask for too much, nobody calls.

So, I wish newspapers would quit talking about this stuff and just start charging. They’ll quickly “understand the value” of their content, which, with rare exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, is something very much like zero, and then get to the real business at hand, which isn’t figuring out how to get people to pay for newspaper Web content, it’s how news organizations can generate enough revenue to do the important work they need to do.

Solutions to that problem almost certainly exist. The sooner the industry quits working over questions that have already been answered, the sooner we’ll find them.

Written by King Kaufman

June 6th, 2009 at 9:12 am