“The business model that had fueled the golden age of American newspapers broke somewhere around 2005. Total advertising revenues began dropping, and, at least at this writing, it seems unlikely they will rise appreciably again, at least until print newspapers have literally disappeared and been replaced by some digital future that is still emerging.”
That’s how ProPublica general manager and former Wall Street Journal assistant publisher Richard Tofel begins his 30-page e-essay, “Why American Newspapers Gave Away The Future,” which will be available on Amazon.com and other sites beginning Wednesday.
Tofel asks: Why did nearly all newspaper publishers decide in the mid-1990s to put their content on the Internet free of charge?
How, as a visitor from another planet might ask, did a large industry that had successfully charged customers for its product for more than a century come to decide to give that product away and thus threaten its very existence? The answer can be found on any number of levels, though I think it ultimately lies in an understanding of the culture of newspapers and newspapering.
He explores that in his essay, and makes these observations:
* Newspapers feared they’d be regarded as “Square” if they asked readers to pay for content. (“Simply put, the notion that information wants to be free had become Hip.”)
* “The economic future of newspapers depends on their maintaining a near-monopoly on high-quality local news and on achieving a substantial level of circulation revenues, ideally online.”
* Most people think newspapers “succumbed to a stealth attack from Craigslist,” but the newspaper-owned CareerBuilder and predecessors CareerFinder and CareerPath were online first. However, Tofel notes they “failed to compete effectively with a single geek working out of his apartment.”
Tofel says the business model of newspapers has been broken irretrievably for about seven years now, but…
We should care not about newspapers themselves but about the highest level of quality journalism that they have represented for a century or so. The future of that kind of journalism will depend largely on our ability to create new institutions, and adapt old ones, so that we can respond to technological change with business creativity, entrepreneurial determination, self-confidence, and common sense.
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Tofel’s e-essay is $1.99, and can be pre-ordered here.