From paywalls to incentives for writers, there’s still some hope left.
The death-by-installment-plan decline of America’s newspaper industry may have finally gone from grave sickness to life support.
The priests haven’t been called in yet to give the last rites, but one bit of news Monday certainly led many to draw the curtains and light the candles: the Boston Globe’s largest union’s rejection of $10 million in proposed benefit and wage cuts that owners the New York Times Co. insisted the ailing paper needs to survive.
And it didn’t stop there. The almost immediate response by the Times was to slash the pay of the Boston Newspaper Guild members by 23 percent, effective next week. And that caused such a rumble that the Times was forced to issue a statement Tuesday saying it had no intention of closing the Globe.
That lasted until Wednesday, when it was reported in the Globe itself that Times had hired Goldman Sachs to help facilitate possible bids and a sale of the paper. Ouch!
What’s an ailing industry to do?
Author, screenwriter and McSweeney’s publisher Dave Eggers made a lot of noise recently proclaiming that he was going to “rework” newspapers and rediscover readers by adopting an approach that “luxuriates in the beauties of print."
It’s a nice idea, and if anyone can pull it off, maybe it’s Eggers, but as any graphics department head at any newspapers will tell you, there are only so many redesigns you can do to dress up the walking wounded.
TheWrap has five other thoughts.
Following, five potential storming-of-the-beaches solutions for an industry badly in need of a financial D-Day:
1. ONLINE ONLY
It’s not just the future, but the present of newspapers. The Christian Science Monitor went exclusively online, having lost more than $50 million in 2008. The Hearst Corporation closed down the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March and turned it into a much leaner online product. This spring, the Detroit Free Press severely limited its home delivery and trimmed the newsstand version to just over 30 pages.
As too many journalists will tell you, an online only product also means more of them would join the over 20,000 scribes who’ve lost their jobs in the past two years. And, indeed, at the papers that have shed their newsprint versions, they have also shed a good number of staffers — naturally limiting what the paper can cover.
But, in many ways, going online-only makes good sense: It certainly saves on distribution and printing costs…not to mention all those trees.
The other bonus: An online news organization can not only report and respond to what’s going on immediately — and then fill in the blanks as more and more information is revealed — but it can offer context, relevant links and other media to augment a story.
The cliché that "you get what you pay for" holds a lot of weight with some media managers — or at least they’d like to convince readers of that.
A few years ago, a number of publications had paywalls — or online subscriptions: If you want to read the content, you have to cough up either a monthly or yearly rate.
Most of these papers went back to being free. They found paywalls brand-inhibiting — and actually a barrier to convincing advertisers to get onboard. Plus, getting readers to commit over $100 for access to content they probably can find elsewhere easily for free is not a ring many potential suitors are willing to slip on their fingers.
Now a number of papers are talking about putting the genie back in the profit bottle, especially when there’s a specialized audience and a good name brand. In fact, paywalls have proved a nice profit center for the likes of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Former Time magazine editor Walter Issacson caused quite a stir when he suggested that a "digital coin purse or micropayment E-Z Pass" could save the store with a whole new source of revenue.
Similar to the way you can purchase just one song for 99 cents off iTunes instead of getting the whole album, the notion here is that readers won’t object to being charged a small small fee, like pennies, for access to specific value-added content.
The New York Times tried something similar a while back but gave up on it. In a program called Times Direct, it put non-news portions of the paper behind a wall you could only breach if you were a subscriber. Though the Times said TimesSelect made the company over $10 million a year, it was bad for search engines and some columnists complained that their work wasn’t getting enough online exposure.
As the music industry has learned the hard way, if they can get it for free, some people just won’t pay. But there is some content — Times columnists like Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, for example — that others might shell out might happily for. It might not bring in enough of the needed revenue on its own, but it could help.
This was bandied about a lot at recent hearings held by John Kerry’s Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology — which laughably sometimes found the 2004 Presidential candidate the only Senator in attendance — and Maryland Senator Ben Cardin’s “Newspaper Revitalization Act.”
The idea is that papers would become educational resources and eligible for a wide variety of tax breaks. Not only would subscription, newsstand sales and ad revenue be tax exempt, but also contributions from the public or interested groups would be tax deductible.
The major change this would have on the content of papers is that they could no longer endorse particular political candidates. The minor fear is that they’ll lose their character.
There’s already one major test case — Florida’s St. Petersburg Times is controlled by a nonprofit educational institution, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. And at least one possible major player is a big proponent: David Geffen, reportedly sniffing after the New York Times, is said to be in favor of converting the legendary institution into a nonprofit institution.
5. PAY FOR PLAY
"Incentive bonus" may be a filthy concept lately because of the recent AIG and other bailed-out corporate scandals, but it just might be the silver bullet for newspapers.
Instead of paying journalists five or even six figure salaries, news organizations would give them a small steady income and then reward them depending on how popular or well-read their stories are online through unique page views or via reader response.
It’s raw Vox Populi, that’s for sure. It’s also — as anyone who’s ever had an author friend try to jig his Amazon status through reviews and views — widely open to abuse. And yes, it makes journalists a bit like encyclopedia salesmen hocking their wares for commission.
But to be honest, most journalists are extremely competitive and always want their story on A1 or Most Read on the web, so Pay for Play would just unleash the beast.
Or you could just add the words Sex, Twilight, Stephenie Meyer, American Idol, Barack Obama and free Porn downloads to every article and hope the Google gods shine their light on you.