So now, with the New York Times caving in and offering their content for free, it's down to the Wall Street Journal (at least among big U.S. news providers) as the last holdout. Rupert Murdoch is already dropping big hints that he will follow suit, ending the Journal's 11 year paid subscription run, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. Don't expect this to save the old news media, however--major surgery may be required.
Murdoch has suggested that making the WSJ.com free would bring in enough advertising revenue to offset the lost subscription revenues (the Journal generated at least $50 million in subscription revenues last year, say sources close to the paper). He's envisioning a website reaching tens of millions of people around the clock. But the logic is a bit of a stretch. According to the article the site would have to generate over 20 million unique visitors monthly vs 8.3 million monthly now--that's a big jump. Meantime the explosive online advertising growth is slowing some.
Yet the paper may have no choice.Newspapers are caught in the perfect storm. Print viewers are declining steadily--sometimes I feel like the only one around reading a newspaper anymore (don't even ask my kids). Competition is coming from every direction--cable tv, iPods, and so on. Meantime, the Internet has turned into a giant information machine and started leveling the playing field, making the big boys like the New York Times compete in new ways.
Think about how you view your news now vs a few years ago. When I open up my (Google) reader I scan dozens of news sources--BusinessWeek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the new crowd, my favorite bloggers. They may not break much news but they offer interesting insight, often delving deeper than the traditional news sources--and it's often livelier, opinionated, interesting. It's hard to charge for content when the rest of the world is giving it away free.
Newspapers and the media in general will have to come up with a new way to compete, differentiate, and bring in massive eyeballs. In many ways they're still operating from an editorial model of 30 years ago. The stories might be shorter and punchier than when I was writing for BW in the early 90s but, beyond that, I don't see a huge difference.
I've seen various "solutions" offered to help transform the traditional news media. To wit (these would apply to online editions):
* Get personal, and transparent: This means opening the mysterious gates to what has been a closed process. Taped interviews could be put online. Reporters could keep daily Lifestream journals or Twitter to let us follow them through their daily and weekly reporting exercises, showing real emotion ("I can't believe how Greenspan barked at me after that last question..").
* Reporters could act more like bloggers: Create conversations and build communities around issues. Launch podcasts of stories. Speak--ie, write--more boldly, taking contrarian views and challenging the status quo (some are already doing this-Check out BusinessWeek's blogspotting).
* Unleash citizen journalists--Arming everyday mortals with the channel to write about issues at a local level would be an interesting experiment. And don't think it couldn't work for the NY Times or WSJ. Imagine a story about a new tax cut. Wouldn't it be interesting to have real businesspeople--Main Street, not Wall Street--writing and talking about this, as a sort of sidebar running blog to a main story?
Many reporters may cringe over some of these ideas--a journalist always feels more comfortable behind the computer or camera. But it's clear the industry needs to try some new ideas. The current path is going nowhere fast.