Wednesday, 20 January 2010

How to Save Journalism? An iTunes-Like Subscription Model + a Whole LOT of Bankruptcies!

Comment re: Charlie Warner's article "How to Save Journalism: Part III" on
Charlie, you are SO close to the solution, spelling out all the crucial elements but coming just one step short of what is already about to 'save journalism'! I've blogged about it several times and have commented here on MediaBizBloggers about it, but the solution lies in rejecting the commonly held belief (talking heads all nodding sagely in agreement to...) that "...the Internet is not the answer to saving journalism: 'There is no business model or combination of business models that will create a journalistic renaissance on the web.'" AND in rejecting, as you wisely point out, the errors made by the railway barons of old.

Let's remember that the iTunes business model was initially rejected by the status quo in the music industry as they went after litigation and government help to save their broken model. A modified (subscription) model will save journalism via 'E-readers' and Apple's new 'iTablet'. In fact, the deals are already in the works, although it will take a few quarters before we begin seeing the effects as the reader devices need to proliferate, first, the way that Smartphones have begun to.

The critical insights that have to be recognized by everyone in the business are simple, but very difficult to focus on in the midst of the 'emerging media' tsunami we are faced with:

  1. 'Facebook-like' networks are teenage social tools and a way for adults to keep contact with acquaintances (which is what Zuckerman designed it for). Once teens mature and get access to bars and independence from their parents, their use of Facebook changes. Adults experiment with it intensively for a few weeks and move on, checking it only occasionally. It will never become a viable advertising medium -- nothing with the label "social" ever will, social activities are PR platforms, not marketing media.
  2. 'Twitter-like' platforms are 'flash in the pan' experiments in terms of their current mis-use as a platforms for individual celebrity ("What I had for breakfast was..."). Its long-term value will be what we're seeing about Haiti -- an instant, global, free news service (with some voyeuristic celebrity content). Like Second Life, its trendy moment will be eclipsed as the early adopters bore with it and move on.
  3. The WWW (and CNN) killed the Newspaper Business as surely as the auto killed the Railroad Business. The old model of having geographically based and focused centers is over as there's no demand for local news the way there once was. Sure, I'm interested in the debate over the replacement of our local highway, but most of the news I'll pay for is national or global, so there is ZERO incentive for me to subscribe to any single, local news source. Think about that. It's a big deal. It means there are FAR TOO MANY news sources in the world today. 90% of them could fail and it wouldn't change the quality of the news content I want or need.
  4. Connected with the last point, in this age of proliferation of information, no one is going to settle for single sources of news, like a subscription to a single website belonging to a single dinosaur-style city-based newspaper.
Why would I pay even AdAge for online access to only their archives when so many pertinent articles about how advertising is evolving are coming out of Britain or Asia or Australia? Who in their right mind would pay for 100 individual magazine subscriptions when the world is now our oyster? (Instant, universal online translation is almost here, too, which will open up every news source on the planet to every person with Internet access.) My budget will allow me maybe $150 per month for news access, yet most individual sources are currently asking for $39.99 a month. Today I could spend $1,000 in a matter of minutes just for access to a few articles buried in various newspaper's web archives, yet over the long run I just don't trust any single source to be sufficiently all-seeing to feed me exactly the eclectic blend of articles and blogs that I'm interested in, so I'll only have to keep paying more and more far-flung and redundant individual publications for access. Therein lies the solution to quality journalism. Not charity foundations or government bail-outs/subsidies, but a simple subscription-style universal iTunes article-access service that charges me $150 a month (varying rates based on how many articles I access) and pays each news source I access a few cents for each article I read. These services are being created now for the Kindle, 'iTablet' and Sony Reader . Apple charges 99 cents per iTune song, which seems more or less reasonable to consumers, the artists are getting only a fraction of that price, but I will not pay 99 cents per article -- articles are not like songs that I'll replay for the rest of my life, they're too fleeting/timely. I will pay a blanket fee to not have to worry about how much each article is costing me, however. I'd be even happier if it meant that every clever blogger's post I read meant that blogger was getting paid something for her/his thoughts and efforts. What this model will mean, however, is that many, many news sources (and journalists) will fall by the wayside, as they should. Tom DeMarco, in "Slack: Busyness vs. Business", wrote: 
“Change always implies abandonment. What you are abandoning is an old way of doing things. You’re abandoning it because it’s old, because time has made it no longer the best way."
Tough to accept, but Toronto, for example, will soon no longer need the Globe & Mail, Star, Sun and National Post in addition to local news TV stations. In fact, Canada will not need 3-4 major papers and TV stations in addition to many national sources. It's time for all that redundancy to die off. That proliferation belonged to a different, pre-wireless/e-reader world. Should you own shares in journalism schools, I'd sell now. Clark Kent (and all his unionized co-workers) won't find sufficient work in Metropolis to keep him in blue tights in this brave new world. Sadly, bankruptcy on a massive scale is the only way to effect large-scale change once business models break down.

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