A recent Economist features a fascinating historical reflection on our present situation ("Network Effects: How a new communications technology disrupted America's newspaper industry--in 1845," Dec. 17, 2009; pp.142-144). It starts off cleverly:
"Change is in the air. A new communications technology threatens a dramatic upheaval in America’s newspaper industry, overturning the status quo and disrupting the business model that has served the industry for years. This “great revolution”, warns one editor, will mean that some publications “must submit to destiny, and go out of existence.” With many American papers declaring bankruptcy in the past few months, their readers and advertisers lured away by cheaper alternatives on the internet, this doom-laden prediction sounds familiar. But it was in fact made in May 1845, when the revolutionary technology of the day was not the internet—but the electric telegraph."
Prior to the telegraph, newspapers received information largely from correspondents, that is, people who literally wrote letters from far away places, primarily for people in need of business and investment information. The history of the common newspaper, even just the glimpse of it contained in this short article, is illuminating.
In the early 1800s newspapers were astonishingly slow. They received news by post, some as reports from correspondents but mostly by copying old stories from other newspapers as part of an exchange system. The Weekly Herald, recalling the 1820s, noted that “the newspapers of that day relied altogether upon their exchanges for news, and, of course, the intelligence which they gave the readers was meagre, stale and unsatisfactory.” Foreign news, if any, was usually several weeks old.The invention of the telegraph changed all that forever.
Raw news and market information would now arrive first at the telegraph office; papers, along with merchants and everyone else, would have to queue for it. Telegraph firms would establish a new monopoly over news delivery, and would sell early access to the news to the highest bidder. Papers would be unable to compete. Circulation would decline and advertisers would flee.
The parallels between this mid-nineteenth century technological development and the explosion of Internet use 150 years later are striking and instructive. Whereas the nationwide network of telegraph wires was described as "the great highway of thought," we know the worldwide web today as "the information superhighway."
With easy and instant access to what may fairly be called the universal brain, we are overwhelmed with a glut of information. This was also the experience a century ago.
Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, W.J. Stillman, a journalist and critic, decried the effects of the telegraph on his profession. “America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence,” he moaned. “The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”
So what lessons can we learn from the parallel? Unlike the newspapers of Bennett's day, many today are closing up shop. People get their news online at their desktop telegraph station. But they can also get it on the go. Cell phones and BlackBerrys receive short news bursts even before the information reaches the news website. So what does a newspaper do, or even a newspaper website? The situation is still more acute for a weekly like TIME, or a biweekly like World, an Evangelical Christian news magazine.
Of course, very smart and desperate people are frantically trying to figure out an answer. Some organizations allow free access to part of their content, but reserve "premium" content for paid subscribers only. Others are talking about organizing a system of micropayments so people can view content for pennies a page and accumulate a monthly bill at a central dispensary. This is a plausible arrangement. Many people spend money that way for cell phone minutes and text messages, and think nothing of it. Why not also web access to information?
I suspect that people are willing to pay a lot more than they're presently asked to pay. And they ought to pay. Too much is free on the net. It's bad for us. It raises our expectations in other areas of life. People are especially willing to pay for web services that have become indispensable for their electronic lives. If the Wall Street Journal cut off free access to their editorial and opinion pages, I would gladly pay a nominal sum to receive it each day.
Facebook and Blogger are free. Why? Facebook has become the way people stay in touch, and even the way close friends communicate, replacing email in some cases. Once people start using it, the elasticity of demand for the service becomes very low. Life without Facebook becomes unthinkable.
The same is true for bloggers like me. I know this format. I have an archive. People know where to find me. My natural inertia also disinclines me to switch to Wordpress or some other platform. So Blogger could easily charge me for their service, and I would gladly pay it...up to a point.
So my advice to news magazines like World is this. Offer one year of access to all your content free of charge to anyone who will simply sign up for it. If you have a product that works for people, they will gladly pay for what has become an important part of their lives. Of course, there will be some who do not pay to renew their access, but instead resign for a free year under an assumed name and different gmail account. There will also be some who treat you like a zero percent credit card. They'll cancel and bounce back and forth between different news magazines. This might be problem for TIME and Newsweek, though World is unique in the market, so they wouldn't have to deal with this. But as there are very few actual Scotsmen in the United States, most people will find this excessively bothersome, especially if the price is right.
As for the content, it cannot be simple news. That is just too easily available everywhere else at no cost. Here is where James Gordon Bennett finds himself vindicated, though his timing was 150 years off. Pay-as-you-enter news sources would have tofocus on the twenty-first century "last mile." With what seems like an ocean of facts, people need thoughtful intermediaries to make sense of it all. They need someone, as someone put it in a bygone era, to examine causes, trace effects, enlighten their judgments, and direct their reflections.
This is one reason that the Fox cable news programs dominate the top ten spots in the ratings. Much of what they broadcast is advocacy journalism that is insightful, suitably entertaining, and slanted conservative in a right of center nation. Successful print media will do the same, providing just enough raw news data to establish the background for the analysis. Some analysts are better than others. Some, like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, are tops. Just as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane bought up the best names in the business for the Daily Inquirer and turned the paper around, a successful news source will pay top dollar to have a good names writing exclusively for them. Sports franchises do not let their players tour around with other teams. Get these consistently brilliant analysts on your team, and your team only.
We are swimming in information, but we are parched for wisdom. This twenty-first century collision of computer technology and markets with news and analysis will put wisdom to work for newspapers and news magazines. Or they will simply disappear.