People do pay for news. Just not enough.

Bill Wyman, writing in Splice Today, lists five reasons why newspapers are failing. Chief among them, he argues (at some length, if not with commensurate clarity), is that readers don’t pay for news:

The problem of the daily press in the U.S. is exclusively this: the collapse of its business model. That model used to be, plainly put, making money—a lot of money, oceans of money—delivering advertising on newsprint into peoples’ homes. Subscribers didn’t pay for news. Advertisers did.

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered.

Well, no. What Wyman means is that the revenue newspapers make from advertising pays for the production of news. But advertisers are not paying for news – they are paying for eyeballs. And the eyeballs are attracted by the news; without it, they wouldn’t be there. The subscribers and others who buy newspapers may not contribute enough to finance the production of news (in South Africa, the cover price pays about one-third of the cost of producing and distributing the newspaper), but they are paying to receive the news (and entertainment) offered by the newspaper. As a result, far more of them view the ads that go with the news than ads that go without news, such as the “Shoppers” Wyman refers to. That is why advertisers still pay big bucks to put ads in newspapers, and less to put them in “Shoppers” (or, for that matter, on the internet).  (Thomas Jefferson, had he been an ad executive, might have put it thus: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have ads without newspapers or newspapers with ads, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.)

The problem is not that people don’t pay for news. It is that they don’t pay enough for news.

Wyman, like so many others, makes another error to which I have referred before. He judges newspapers by their ability to make money: a successful newspaper is one that is profitable; those that don’t are not successful. But we don’t judge public broadcast media by that standard, so why newspapers? If we accept that newspapers have a public function – to inform citizens, promote debate, monitor those in power, and so on – then those are the criteria we should use to judge newspapers. A newspaper that doesn’t make money could still be a very good newspaper, though  not a very good business.

PS. When it comes to the troubles facing the newspaper industry, Wyman writes, “an uncharacteristic haze characterizes a lot of the reporting and commentary” by newspaper journalists. A haze, uncharacteristic or not, would be an apt word to describe Wyman’s own meandering attempt. It would never, I am pleased to say, have made the pages of a reputable newspaper uncut!

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