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The news industry should sell singles (and other $ suggestions)

picture of a sign that says "NY TIMES ON SALE HERE"

We’d buy some of it… but not all of it

We’re all quite familiar with the crash-and-burn of the music industry. They went down screaming, too, didn’t they? Suing individuals for millions for sharing music online (in those very early days!). Whining about how consumers weren’t buying albums anymore. We were those consumers, and we didn’t shed much tears for them, did we? After the lawsuits, we shared more music online. We refused to buy albums full of crap with only one (or, if you were lucky) two decent tracks.

The music industry adapted to consumer’s anger about mostly-bad albums by first selling singles on cassette tapes, then selling singles online, most notably via iTunes. Online/Satellite Radio with a subscription+little-to-no-advertisement model is becoming the preferred listening method of consumers in the US.

Consumers are saying a few things with their behavior. 1. They are willing to pay for good, quality work 2. They are willing to pay to stop ads. 3. They want more control over what they pay for. 4. Contrary to popular marketing belief, consumers want a lot of choices (I’m sure a critical mass/upper limit exists, but that ceiling is a lot higher than what we run into now).

The newspaper industry is a lot like the music industry: fill up a product with crap, include one gem, then essentially make consumers pay full price for that one gem. Also: treat consumers as one, big mass instead of individuals with unique tastes.

The music industry is addressing all of these aspects. We can now buy exactly the song we want. We have plenty of choices on all the who, what, where, when, why and how we buy music. The music industry is finding other income streams, mostly from advertisers, by selling rights to songs. (They’ve always done this but now it’s almost immediate – you can hear the same song on streamed radio then hear it in a McDonald’s commercial on TV that same day).

Newspapers definitely need the subscription money. No doubt about this. As John Oliver said last week in his now oft-quoted rant,”Sooner or later, we’re either going to have to pay for journalism or we’re going to pay for it.”


Let’s get over that hump. Subscriptions are essential. How do subscriptions work for a digital news organization?

I’ve used the “flood” metaphor before in describing the information/data age of digital media. In a flood, you can’t simply drink the water that’s all around you. The water flooding the streets is tainted. Because of the flood water, the tap water is also tainted. If you drink from your regular water sources, you will become ill. You will have to collect rainwater yourself (very difficult and unreliable safe-to-drink factor), filter flood water carefully (takes a lot of effort and equipment), or get water from an outside source. Relief organizations bring tons and tons of bottled water and water dispensing trucks to flooded areas. In a natural disaster, I’d happily accept a bottle of water handed to me by a FEMA agent or a Red Cross volunteer, as the water they’d hand me would very likely be safe to drink.

Information is like water.

We news consumers will happily pay for “safe” (i.e. reliable) information. But just as a water bottle has to be handed off (and not floating in the contaminated flood water) to be deemed safe, consumable news stories can’t be floating around in a mess of unreliable data. Plus, I need to have some touchstone sources to go to for information. I won’t take information (or water!) from any old street peddler.

Paying for individual stories is an absolute essential. The price has to be in pennies, though. One song on iTunes is $1.29 and that’s hitting the upper limit of what people will pay. Print paper prices were also traditionally kept low: 50 cents to $1.00 per issue, perhaps more for Sunday editions.

Newspapers must set up user accounts with credits

I can pay NYTimes, say, $50 and use that credit cache to pay for stories until the balance is zero.

Journalists have to adapt. No, they don’t have to tweet. But the journalism world in general has gotten off-track. Some sort of populist, reductionist train has carted off all integrity of the field. A journalist’s job isn’t to only “report facts” – it is to sort out, for the reader, which side of the issue is more solid than the other.

Journalists must go back to thinking for themselves

The biggest conceit of journalism of the last 100 years is that its practitioners were “unbiased.” There is no such thing for humans. A journalist has and always will be a curator of facts. This is what we want them to be. It isn’t “editorializing” if, as a trained professional, a journalist presents the most compelling arguments from all sides of an issue. This isn’t what has been happening in journalism. Instead journalists have been beaten down into mere mouthpieces, forced by editors to write so-as-not-to-get-sued.

Consumers have been ignoring journalists as a whole for decades now. Instead, readers seek out journalists and writers by name. In the journalism world, these names are usually held by what are called “columnists,” writers with a regularly-produced column that concentrates on a certain area of expertise, e.g., economics (David Pogue), home economics/essays (the late Erma Bombeck), world politics, entertainment, chess playing, etc. Just as people would seek out the comic strips they liked and ignore the rest, readers will choose to search out the opinion of a columnist they trust, and they will pay to do this. But only this. They will give up on the columnist if you make them pay for other columnists they despise.

Corporations must pay for news they quote

As John Oliver points out, every media outlet quotes newspaper journalism pieces. How is it that Huffington Post, an entity that rakes in millions from advertising and selling its user data to those advertisers, can take those journalism pieces and quote them for free? This is ridiculous. We will need legislation to make this work, but entities like Buzzfeed and Huffpo must pay subscriptions or individual-use rights to newspapers.

Newspapers must be non-profits

To make such legal measures work, all newspapers must function and be designated as non-profits. The argument for non-profit status of traditional news industry organizations is long and somewhat complicated. I won’t list it all here. But I think it is an essential piece of this whole crisis, and, a key element of a health democracy. All of this “being owned by Comcast” or “A Disney Entity” crap is a dystopian megacorp capitalist hell and we should get journalists out from under that oppression ASAP.

The news industry can survive this. In fact, nothing I’ve said here is a new idea. I personally have been in meetings and chats with industry insiders where these measures were spoken about more than 5 years ago. The corporate hold (and mindset) has taken over newspapers and they are slow (understatement) to make changes because corporations like their mouthpieces.

We all need to pitch in to put this ship right.

Ask the NYTimes, Mother Jones, Washington Post, et al, to start up a pay-per-article credit system. Buy some credits & use them.

Tweet out, FB post, snap your favorite columnists and tell us why you like their perspective.

Hold Huffpo and other outlets to the fire if their articles contain no original work. Up your standards for what you consume, and hold those organizations to a higher standard.

Keep an eye out for legislation around these issues and keep an open mind when some is introduced. A free press is a key factor in the health of our democracy, and it’s important you don’t hate on any new legislative efforts to preserve it. Take your time to look through it first before you spew, please. Then, once you understand it, spew responsibly.


Photo Credit: my friend Paul Swansen on Flickr

Video Credit: John Oliver

Great article from 2011 with charts about the music industry: The REAL death of the music industry