UPDATE: Sure enough, the Times announced (March 17) that it would begin charging all but its newspaper subscribers for accessing online content. The pay-for-content plan is tiered, enabling online surfers to view up to 20 items per month at its website before having to begin purchasing articles.
The Times’ announcement is fraught with uncertainties about whether readers accustomed to free online content will pay for it. But the Times, as it was at great pains to explain, has little other choice — free content, the giant publisher concedes —doesn’t pay.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that in 2010, online advertising and readership surpassed newspapers for the first time ever.
That’s hardly news, since we’ve seen this coming for several years. Still, the report presents sobering data for publishers and consumers alike:
- Newspaper ad revenue in 2010 fell 46 percent in four years to an estimated $22.8 billion, with an additional $3 billion more for online advertising according to the report.
- Meanwhile online advertising is at $25.8 billion in 2010, the study said, citing data from researcher eMarketer.
These kinds of numbers directly impact the newspapers’ fundamental purpose: the gathering and writing of news. Says the study: “a challenge for news organizations is that much of this online ad spending, 48 percent, is in search advertising, little of which finances news.” Newsrooms are currently 30 percent smaller than they were in 2000, the study added.
And there you have it. Online news and advertising trends, although going up, may not be sufficient to sustain extensive news gathering operations, which is in part why the Journal charges online readers for its premium content, and why the New York Times is soon to follow suit. Free content, in fact, could be an endangered feature of the Internet.
Well, so what? After all, the “news” and a whole lot else is readily available, 24/7, not just online, but on phones, personal computers and via social media. There are in fact more media platforms available than at any time in history. And all of it, or at least, most of it, is free.
We ought to care about what these numbers are telling us, because they underscore an emerging reality. Free content — or more precisely, free high quality content — is, like the print version of your daily paper, also going away.
The Times, along with a handful of other esteemed print publications, is in the vanguard to creating content delivery platforms to reach the broadest possible audiences. Its e-version is in many ways superior to the Times’ print edition because of its successful marriage of content with graphics and technology. The before-and-after images of the impact of the tsunami on Japanese cities are proof of that. But huge investments are required to produce those images, and as the Pew report emphasizes, online ad revenue isn’t sufficient to sustain newsgathering operations.
Which raises a fundamental, societal, issue. What value do we place on professionally reported and edited content? Think about all the amateur video we’ve seen in the aftermath of recent disasters like 9-11, Katrina, Haiti and Japan. It’s available to us to watch and marvel, totally without charge. It’s also the quintessential WYSISWHYG version of news. What’s not available, unless you go to the Times’ website (or CNN or the Journal, or even Fox News) is the context — is the explanation, the background, the significance and meaning of what you are seeing with your own eyes. That content can only come from trained, experienced reporters on the scene, backed by knowledgeable editors who supply the big picture perspective.
Are these elements important enough that the public will pay for them?
In the years immediately ahead, how we answer that question will determine whether newspapers — indeed all professional newsgathering services — survive at all.