…which were formerly known as newspapers. A recent column by Frank Rich makes me think that news organizations can be viable using a paid subscription model–in fact, I think they can be very successful. The problem is that they might not be very widely read. Rich, discussing the looming demise of many newspapers, writes (italics mine):
But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site. But we can’t have serious opinions about America’s role in combating the Taliban in Pakistan unless brave and knowledgeable correspondents (with security to protect them) tell us in real time what is actually going on there. We can’t know what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street unless teams of reporters armed with the appropriate technical expertise and assiduously developed contacts are digging night and day. Those reporters have to eat and pay rent, whether they work for print, a TV network, a Web operation or some new bottom-up news organism we can’t yet imagine….
Just because information wants to be free on the Internet doesn’t mean it can always be free. Web advertising will never be profitable enough to support ambitious news gathering. If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn’t foot the bill for such reportage, it won’t happen….
The real question is for the public, not journalists: Does it want to pony up for news, whatever the media that prevail?
Well, we’re all about the porn. We’ll get to that in a bit. I keep reading about how people won’t pay for news, information wants to be free (and I want a fucking magick pony…), and so on. But I don’t think that’s actually true. Lots of people would be willing to subscribe to online news. Why do I think this?
Because lots of people already subscribe to newspapers. The question is then, would an online, subscription newspaper be commercially viable? If a subscription service were to have 100,000 customers, each of whom paid $15 per month (which is far cheaper than most newspaper subscriptions), that would generate $30 million annually. If we then assume that it costs ~$200,000 annually to pay for a reporter/journalist–this would include all of the overhead costs, benefits, and administration–then an online subscription organization could afford well over 100 full-time journalists.
This ‘newspaper’ would be missing one key feature: straight opinion. As Rich notes, any asshole with a blog (including this one) can offer opinion. But the stories could be a mix of short news wire-like updates along with much longer investigative reporting (which could have opinion thrown in). The writing would have to be good–and interesting. You probably wouldn’t get much in the way of Compulsive Centrist Disorder (although considering people will pay money to watch bugs getting stepped on, who knows?).
Onto the porn. Remember that article about porn-using habits in the U.S.? While it’s not explicitly stated in the article, my best conservative guess is that about 0.15% of households with internet access have one or more porn subscriptions (since the data are from only one large provider, it’s probably much higher). I don’t think it’s a reach to argue that the potential market for news would be larger than the market for porn: there’s money to be had. It shouldn’t be that hard for regional and national news organizations to get 100,000+ subscribers, as long as their products are good.
A sharp business person could make this financially successful. The problem is that ‘national’ news organizations might cover national affairs (and international affairs too), but they wouldn’t have a national readership (and that’s before you consider the information divide based on economic class).
In other words, subscriptions could work, but this successful model most likely means that most people will never read the news. That’s not good for the Coalition of the Sane.