I have just finished reading Michael Massing’s excellent survey of the news business in the New York Review of Books, and the thought struck me: everybody is saying newspapers need a new business model. But there are only two business models for news, and newspapers are already using them: building readership to attract advertisers, and charging for content (or, in most cases, a combination of both). Those are the business models that have served newspapers well for over a century (and still works for many); ironically, as Massing’s article makes clear, they are also the only business models that work for online news media. Web sites like Slate, Politico and Talking Points Memo – among the few commercial online news ventures that are profitable – are, as far as their business strategy is concerned, no different from newspapers. In fact, Massing notes, Politico would probably not be profitable without the advertising attracted by its print edition.
Newspapers don’t need a new business model; they need to improve the ones they have. That means providing content that attracts readers, and finding ways of charging for online content (newspapers already charge for printed content in the form of subscriptions and cover prices). For some reason this is controversial. Among the most vociferous advocates of free news on the ‘net are, ironically, those who profit – and I mean profit in commercial terms – from it. “Walled gardens,” insists Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post – “don’t work”. The “link economy” is here to stay. Sure she would say that, because where would Huffington Post be without the “link economy” which allows it provide cost-free news to its readers? Even so, Huffington Post is probably not profitable: the company says it turns a profit some months and not in others, but won’t provide figures.
Attracting advertisers and charging for content are the only commercially viable ways we know of to pay for the production of news. There are many other news organisations that do a great journalism – ProPublica and the like – but they are NGOs, funded by charity. And some argue that great news organisations like the New York Times should go the same route, relying on endowments rather than profits to stay afloat. It won’t work, argues Massing: “Turning those papers into nonprofits would require the Sulzberger and the Grahams to voluntarily give away their wealth. Even if they were so moved, where would all those billions come from? They simply aren’t out there.”
The debate really should not be about the business model; it should be about journalism.