And when the Justice Department lawyers arrive, briefcases in hand, to ask why America’s two national newspapers did these things in concert—resulting in a sea change within newspapering as one regional newspaper after another followed suit in pursuit of fresh, lifesaving revenue—you can answer directly: We never talked. Not a word. We read some rant in the Columbia Journalism Review that made the paywall argument. Blame the messenger.
Truth is, a halting movement toward the creation of an online subscription model already exists; at this writing, internal discussions at both the Times and The Post are ongoing, according to sources at both papers. And one small, furtive, and cautious meeting of newspaper executives took place in Chicago in May to explore the general idea of charging for online distribution of news. As for Rupert Murdoch, his rethought decision not to freely offer The Wall Street Journal online speaks volumes, as do his recent trial balloons about considering an online subscription model for less unique publications. Where the Times and The Post lead, Murdoch and, ultimately, every desperate and starving newspaper chain will simply follow. Why? Because the need to create a new revenue stream from the twenty-first century’s information-delivery model is, belatedly, apparent to many in the industry. But no one can act if the Times and The Post do not; the unique content of even a functional regional newspaper—state and municipal news, local sports and culture—is insufficient to demand that readers pay online. But add to that the national and international coverage from the national papers that would no longer be available on the Internet for free but could be provided through participation in the news services of the Times and The Post and, finally, there is a mix of journalism that justifies a subscription fee.
Time is the enemy, however, and the wariness and caution with which the Times and The Post approach the issue reveal not only how slow industry leaders have been to accurately assess the realities, but how vulnerable one national newspaper is to the other. Should the Times go behind a pay curtain while the Post remains free, or vice versa, the result would be a short-term but real benefit to the newspaper that fails to act, and fiscal bleeding for the newspaper attempting to demand recompense for work that is elsewhere being provided free of charge. Neither the Times nor the Post can do this alone.
Will it work? Is there enough demand for old-line, high-end journalism in the age of new media? Will readers pay for what they have already accepted as free? And can industry leaders claw their way back in time to the fateful point when they mistook the Internet as a mere advertising opportunity for their product?
Perhaps, though the risks are not spread equally. Given the savage cutting that has been under way at regional, chain-owned newspapers over the last decade or more, it may be too late for some metro dailies; they may no longer have enough legitimate, unique content to compel their readership to pay. But for the Times and The Post—entities that are still providing the lion’s share of journalism’s national, international, and cultural relevance—their reach has never been greater.
The proof is that while online aggregation and free newspaper Web sites have combined to batter paid print circulation figures, more people are reading the product of America’s newspapers than ever before. Certainly more of them are reading the Times (nearly 20 million average unique visitors monthly) and the Post (more than 10 million monthly unique visitors), though they are doing it online and not paying for the privilege. And tellingly, the Times—its product still unmatched in print or online by other mainstream publications or anything that new media has yet offered—has transformed its print circulation into a profit center for the first time in years, merely by jacking up the price, with newsstand prices rising in June to $2 and up to $6 on Sunday.
Clearly, the product still moves. But to what purpose, when more and more readers rightly identify the immediate digitized version as superior, yet pay nothing for that version, and online advertising simply doesn’t deliver enough revenue? If the only way to read the Times is to buy the Times, online or off, then readers who clearly retain a desire for that product will reach for their wallets. And those comfortable acquiring their news at a keyboard will be happy to pay much less than they do for home delivery.