February 08, 2012 at 10:04 AM EST
Sin or sense?
Oh, no, the “original sin” meme of newspapers not charging for content is rising again. Sigh. Dick Tofel, general manager of Pro Publica and former assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is a very smart and reasonable man and he has written a smart and reasonable Kindle Single (enabling him [...]

Oh, no, the “original sin” meme of newspapers not charging for content is rising again. Sigh.

Dick Tofel, general manager of Pro Publica and former assistant publisher and assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is a very smart and reasonable man and he has written a smart and reasonable Kindle Single (enabling him to charge as a matter of metaphor) about “why newspapers gave away the future.” But his case is not exactly what it appears, for this is more of a history than a reverse-Reagan (that is, “Mr. Gorbachev, build this wall!”). Tofel writes (his emphasis):

[T]o say that a monumental mistake was made in 1995-1996 is not a prescription for business models in 2012. Consumers have been accustomed to a cornucopia of free content for nearly a generation now. And the newspaper industry is, in many places, a shadow of what it was in 1995…. This has been a meditation on one of those hinge points in history, not an exercise in nostalgia or a call to somehow repeal the past.

In the end, he is asking us to value journalism for the future. On that, we agree. But on history, not so much.

After setting out a well-written review of newspapers’ entry onto the net, Tofel argues (my emphasis) that “it must follow that the decision to give away newspaper content was a mistake, that an alternative future in which nearly all newspapers sought to charge for content on the web, just as they had charged for it in print and on the online proprietary services, would quite likely have produced a happier outcome.”

I could argue that newspapers were doomed to lose their monopolies and thus their pricing power over both content and advertising and that continuing to execute a business model based on controlling a scarcity would lose to those able to exploit the economics of abundance created by the net — read: Google. But I won’t argue that now because this has been argued so much before.

I could argue that all newspapers pricing in concert would have been antitrust and that it would have taken only one to ruin the game. But I needn’t argue that because that’s just what happened (I lived through the industry’s disastrous attempt at conspiratorial collusion, the New Century Network).

I will argue in a piece in the Guardian on Monday that it might also prove to be a mistake to see ourselves in the content business when others use content, including our content, as a tool to generate signals about people so they can extract much greater value out of that knowledge — read: Facebook. But I’ll save that argument for next week.

Instead what interests me about Tofel’s thesis is his cultural contention that newspapers fell victim to West Coast vs. East Coast thinking — a variant of the SOPA/PIPA worldview of Northern California vs. Southern California. Read: Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood; Silicon Valley vs. Sixth Avenue; technology vs. intellectual property; platform vs. content.

I hear this argument in other, more emotional and less reasonable terms often. I hear it when my ilk and I are accused of being internet utopians or technological trimphalists. I hear it even back to arguments over Gutenberg and technological determinism.

There was indeed a meeting of the Future of News conspirators only a week ago. But at any such gathering, I never hear anyone predicting or even longing for a utopia. I never hear them say that the outcome of this change is certain, only that change itself is certain. The real difference I hear is between those who welcome the change and fret over it, those who see opportunity and those who see destruction. Read: the disruptors vs. the disrupted.

“[T]he insecure management teams of the newspaper companies chose to follow the supremely confident leaders of technology in making some of the key strategic choices posed by the rise of the web,” Tofel writes (my emphasis). There he is blaming the technology cult for leading the newspaper institutions astray. Oh, he gives much blame to the institutions’ proprietors, especially for killing their own efforts at innovation and collaboration.

But he’s really blaming the newspapers for answering the siren call of the geeks. “Simply put, the notion that ‘information wants to be free’ had become Hip [his capitalization], and the idea that readers should pay for content online as they long had in print had become Square. Publishers, never the most self-confident bunch even in the most stable of times [ed: oh, how I disagree with that, having rarely witnessed such hubris as I witnessed among newspaper executives], desperately sought to be regarded as Hip as the new technologies roared across the landscape of their business, threatening to upend everything.”

In the end, Tofel reduces the economics of the net to the level of a fad. There’s where we fundamentally disagree. He tries to impose the industrial economics of scarcity and print and local monopolies upon the net’s economics of abundance and bits and openness. That’s what didn’t compute.

Oh, yes, we can debate the hypothetical of what would have happened if…. We can debate whether The New York Times pay meter works — but please first define “works” for me, as the company is still shrinking. Once I agree that I want the Times plan to work and tell you that I subscribe to the paper, then we can debate whether the walls will work or are working elsewhere. But none of that leads to a sustainable business strategy for news in a new reality. I believe we are in a new reality and that old models and old rules need not apply.

Tofel ends by imploring us: “In short, this time we need to do better” for journalism. He has done very well for journalism, helping to found Pro Publica, which is doing great work both in investigative reporting and in new models of collaborative reporting. Except it’s not economically sustainable. That is, it’s not a business. It has to beg for charity. Though that charity is well-deserved, there’s only so much foundation money to go around and that, I think we’d agree, is not how journalism will survive or prosper in the future.

This is why I started the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, to help students and entrepreneurs find new and sustainable models. I’ll have you know that just yesterday, I had a meeting with an entrepreneur about charging for content and I’m about to commission a study on best practices in paid and free newsletters to help. I’m not opposed to charging for content. I just don’t think it’s the solution that got away.

I also am not sure that concentrating on the past is where we are going to find those solutions. Oh, yes, there are lessons there (that’s why I’ve gone farther back and become obsessed with Gutenberg and his disruption). But the risk — the siren’s seduction of the recent past — is that we’ll still think we can maintain the old ways in a time of disruption. I think we have to be willing to throw out old assumptions so we see new opportunities.

And that’s what I think the newspaper industry failed to do because it still thinks its job is to make and sell content when I think its job should be to serve and enable their communities — read: Facebook and Google, which were able to find new value in content.

I do recommend reading Tofel’s essay (it’s only $1.99) as, again, it is well-written and researched and smart and reasonable. But then I also urge you to take the assumptions made by the industry and reflected in it and question them.

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