So, the National Business Review has decided to (partially) monetise its interweb presence.
In a rather petulant letter, publisher Barry Colman takes aim at the enemies of journalism and backs his team to be able to make a paid content model work where very few have done so before, and never in such a tight and competitive media ecology as we have in NZ.
As you know, there has been endless discussion for a number of years about the crazy model adopted by newspapers in most parts of the free world in which they pay the enormous costs of running professional newsrooms only to give their content away free â€“ while at the same time slashing newsroom numbers to save money as circulation and advertising revenues fall.
And to add to the madness it has been the aggregators that have profited the most from the supply of that free news copy. Worse still the model has spawned a huge band of amateur, untrained, unqualified bloggers who have swarmed over the internet pouring out columns of unsubstantiated â€œfactsâ€ and hysterical opinion.
Most of these â€œcitizen journalistsâ€ donâ€™t have access to decision makers and are infamous for their biased and inaccurate reporting on almost any subject under the sun (while invariably criticising professional news coverage whose original material they depend on to base their diatribes).
It is only a matter of time before the model collapses. The alternative is newsrooms decimated to the point of processing public relations handouts or unedited government propaganda from their fully staffed team of spin doctors.
Good luck to them. Unfortunately, blaming competitors (yes; bloggers are competitors for reader time and attention) for the (slow) failure of one’s business never made the business suddenly work better, and this sort of competition-blaming is typically the refuge of people who believe they have an ordained right to profits. As Dan Conover says:
This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There’s the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They’ve argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the “blame the bloggers” approach flop? OK: Blame Google.
(Conover has links in his post, which you can follow if you go there. He was a newsman; now he’s a blogger. Go figure.)
Blame anyone except the industry itself for failing to sufficiently move with the market. But perhaps that’s what Barry Colman thinks he’s doing. There are good reasons behind the decision, chief among which is the importance of maintaining a strong and well-resourced newsgathering apparatus. He’s aware that a move to a pay model needs to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in quality, and posits the fairly reasonable idea that people will pay for it.
The trouble with artificial scarcity is partly highlighted by Cactus Kate:
For the pay-per-view am I to be reading low paid first-jobbed twenty-something children repeating the news, or will I read serious senior business journos actually breaking stories that matter?
Good question. If you withhold your best content from the market, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your brand. The imperatives which drive your business conflict: you want to put your best content in front of as many people as possible because it’s the best content (not the ordinary content) which drives your readership and reputation; by locking it away, you hide your light under a bushel so few people know about it, and even if people chance to find out about it (from those relatively few who do have a subscription) then they can’t access it anyway. This is not the way to become a news or commentary source of record. And if you don’t, And if you don’t put your best content up there, then what are you offering again?
At best it seems like this model will rob Peter to pay Paul – that is, the NBR’s ordinary content (and readership) will suffer for the benefit of those few subscribers. This is also what online commenters the NBR site seem to think, and online opinion is predictably scathing.
There has to be a better way.
Edit: I should add that artificial scarcity can potentially work if the content is strong enough. Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review is probably the best daily newspaper in Australasia, and because of its exceptional content, extremely strong commitment to journalistic practice and authoritative market position it is able to dictate such strict terms of access that it causes major headaches for media analysis companies, archivers and researchers. The AFR has no real competition, and that’s what enables it to call the shots. But the NBR is not the AFR – nowhere near, more’s the pity.