The New York Times announced today that they intend to start charging for online content. In my recent study of blogs, I found that linking to mainstream media stories was extremely common; quoting them even more so. If these results are representative, then it seems to me that blogs are serving as a new distribution channel for the media. If that’s true, then the Times is doing exactly the wrong thing.
The numbers shocked me. I found that the most common source of block quotes in my sample was mainstream media – by a long shot. Fully 63% with relevant quotes excerpted mainstream media stories. The media were also the main target of links: of those posts with relevant links, 53% linked to mainstream media stories. Links to other blogs were a distant second; the comparable numbers were 20% and 27% respectively.
These posts are not competing with the media: they are extending it. There are millions of bloggers out there; it seems likely that many of them are passing on what the media report and giving credit back to the journalists. This is free advertising for a business that’s losing its readers. Discouraging the bloggers by asking them to pay is exactly the wrong way to respond.
Many papers allow free access to new stories, then charge for access to older ones. The unique advantage of the news media is currency: with journalists in the field, they can be first with the news – hence the word, “news”. It makes no sense for them to monetize a secondary asset – their archives – at the expense of their main line of business. (In a digital economy, it may also be unwise to outsource their reporting to wire services and turning themselves into middlemen.)
But even charging for the new stories wouldn’t make sense. Newspapers make money in two ways: first by selling newspapers, but more importantly by selling advertising. Circulation is king. By charging for access, they are trading one business model for another. That’s a tremendous risk in a world where those very blogs that could enhance their influence could also constitute an alternative.
Good newspapers like the Times can be valuable members of the online community; or, they can cut themselves off and hope they’re powerful enough to go it alone. I care because that would be bad for the community. They should care because it would be even worse for them.
I see two points against my argument. First, some people don’t believe blogs are so significant. I think they are. They are one of the richest sources of links, which are the currency of the Web. Second, subscriptions could outperform advertising. I doubt this, but I would be thrilled if it were true: it would realign the interests of newspapers with their readers, rather than their current corporate customers.