Hitting a wall

26 Dec

January 2011 is fast approaching and I’m getting a little depressed. Not because 2010 is ending or anything— 2011 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for me, what with a paid internship secured for the summer and a milestone birthday in the spring. No, what I’m sad about is the dreaded newspaper paywall rearing its ugly head again, this time at my favorite media outlet, the New York Times.

I’ve known that the change was coming for a while now; the Times announced it last January. I’ll  be able to read a  couple of articles for free every month and troll the headlines on the home page. Beyond that, I’ll hit the wall. And while I can still get the physical Times thanks to a newspaper readership program at my university, the multimedia and online convenience of the Times’ website aren’t a part of my future.

In my mind, it looks like this.

As both a journalist and a reader, I have mixed feelings about this. From the journalism standpoint of things, I understand where the Times is coming from. People used to pay for newspaper subscriptions without a problem. They understood that, if they wanted access to the news, they had to purchase it.

It was during the transition to the Internet that things got messed up. Everyone made their content available for free. Once people become accustomed to getting something for nothing, they’re not going to want to go back to the way things were. And I’m not sure that just charging to begin with would have solved everything anyway. The beauty of the Internet is its accessibility and usability. Someone, somewhere might’ve figured out how to get the information out there for free in the end.

Advertisers haven’t fared well online either — we can just dismiss their message with a simple click of a button or a pop-up blocker. This means that the money from paywalls is more necessary than ever — there are people behind the content on those newspaper websites, people who need to be paid for their work. It’s easy to forget that.

It’s not a good situation. Like I said, once people are given something for free, they’re not going to want to start paying for it again. That’s why paywalls have not fared well in the past – look at what happened this summer with Rupert Murdoch and the London Times. It makes me curious to see what will happen with New York. I’ve heard that they’re banking on loyal non-subscribers to pay for a promised excellence that’s hard to find elsewhere. That’s a sort of niche attitude that just might work but, then again, it might not.

His wall started to crumble.

The news industry is, to me,  such an interesting animal.  I believe that people have a fundamental right to know what’s going on in the world. That’s what newspapers are designed to do — inform. If we think that way, making people pay for something they inherently deserve seems wrong. But we can’t forget that newspapers are a business, driven — like every other business — by the need to make a profit. That means charging, somehow, the people who access them, whether online or elsewhere.

I’m not going to pretend to know any of the answers. If I did, everyone would be beating down my door right now asking me questions. I  don’t know enough about the industry to say how we can “fix” things. Frankly, it’s never going to be like it was in the past. Doing more with less is the new business model, and it’s here to stay.

And while I don’t think the news industry is, by any means, going to die out, that doesn’t mean I don’t still worry about the future like everyone else does. I realize that I am going into an industry that isn’t exactly stable. It’s a decision that I’ve made and, sometimes, it scares the crap out of me.

 

And then I start to freak out.

It’s certainly not hopeless. As more and more people become dependent on smartphones and devices like the iPad, I think there’s a great chance to “start over” by developing apps that people have to pay to download/access. And niche websites definitely have a better chance at attracting advertisers. The Patch network of sites, run by AOL, could draw in a lot of community advertisers who normally don’t venture online.  I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens. And then write some more about our own doom.

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