Larger newspapers are seriously looking into ways to seek payment for at least some of the news they put online. Their publishers have been discussing various proposals from Internet entrepreneurs, including improved technologies for digital subscriptions, micropayments (on the model of iTunes) to read individual news stories, single-click mechanisms for readers to make voluntary payments, and business-to-business arrangements enabling newspapers to share in the ad revenue from other sites that republish their content. Whether “information wants to be free” on the Internet has become a highly charged, contentious issue, somewhat out of proportion to how much money may be at stake or its potential impact on news reporting.
The audience for public radio has been growing substantially for several decades, driven largely by its national news programs.
Only a few large newspapers are already charging for digital news of special interest. Both The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times sell subscriptions for access to their Web sites, and the Journal also has decided to charge for its content on mobile devices like BlackBerrys and iPhones. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sells subscriptions to avid Green Bay Packers football fans for its Packer Insider site, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers paid membership to a niche Web site of exclusive staff blogs, videos, chats, and social networking.
One entrepreneurial venture, Journalism Online, claims that publishers of hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers have signed letters of intent to explore its strategy for enabling online readers to buy digital news from many publications through a single password-protected Web site. A Silicon Valley startup named Attributor has developed technology to “fingerprint” each news organization’s digital content to determine where it shows up on other Web sites and what advertising is being sold with it. Attributor offers to negotiate with Internet advertising networks to share that revenue with publishers who join its Fair Syndication Consortium. The Associated Press recently announced a strategy for tracking news produced by AP and its member newspapers through the Internet, and then seeking payment for it.
Entrepreneurs have also proposed ways in which news consumers could allow their reading habits on the Internet to be monitored so that news organizations could sell highly targeted groups of readers to advertisers at high prices. Google offers publishers some ways to use its search engine to seek payment for their digital news. But given the Internet’s culture of relatively free access to an infinite amount of information, no one knows whether any of these approaches would lead to new economic models for journalism.
There have been suggestions that philanthropists or foundations could buy and run newspapers as endowed institutions, as though they were museums. But it would take an endowment of billions of dollars to produce enough investment income to run a single sizeable newspaper, much less large numbers of papers in communities across the country.
U. S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland has introduced legislation to allow newspapers to become nonprofits for educational purposes under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, similar to charities and educational and cultural nonprofits. Philanthropic contributions to them would be tax-deductible. But the bill, which has not moved anywhere in Congress, does not address how a newspaper that is losing money, especially one saddled with significant debt or other liabilities, could be converted into a viable nonprofit.
For all this, many newspapers are still profitable, not counting some of their owners’ overhanging debt, which may be resolved through ongoing bankruptcy reorganizations and ownership changes. And many newspapers are extensively restructuring themselves to integrate their print and digital operations, creating truly multimedia news organizations in ways that should produce both more cost savings—and more engaging journalism.