Google’s optimism

There’s plenty to discuss in James Fallows’ excellent Atlantic piece on how Google plans to save the news industry.  It has some good background on what’s hurting the industry, notes that hard news never made money, touches on un-bundling and re-bundling (aggregating), and plenty more.

I want to briefly highlight two points.  First, Google is supposedly agnostic about paywalls:

…people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news. “We have no horse in that race or particular model in mind,” Krishna Bharat, one of the executives most deeply involved in Google’s journalistic efforts, told me, in a typical comment. His team was already working with some newspapers planning to put their content behind paywalls, others planning to remain free and hoping to become more popular with readers annoyed when paywalls crop up elsewhere, and still others planning a range of free and paid offerings. For Bharat and his colleagues, free-versus-paid is an empirical rather than theological matter. They’ll see what works.

[Emphasis mine.]  Read that bolded line again.  Of course people will pay for news?  Really?  If it doesn’t seem all that obvious to you, you’re in good company.

But I’d offer a couple thoughts to put Google’s position in context:

1) Google has pissed off enough newspaper editors already (as Fallows discusses); why piss them off even more by pointing out that paywalls are unlikely to work?

2) If you include advertising as a way “people will pay in some form” then the statement is actually pretty reasonable.

Which brings me to the second point worth calling out.  Google is bullish on the potential of web ads to bring in big revenue:

Newspaper and magazine publishers have felt trapped by the death of print, says [Neal Mohan, VP of Product Dev.], because display ads in print have been such a crucial cash cow. The switch to online display ads has not offset the losses in print, since the “per eyeball” revenue from online display ads has been so much lower…Online display ads may not be so valuable now, he said, but that is because we’re still in the drawn-out “transition” period. Sooner or later—maybe in two years, certainly in 10—display ads will, per eyeball, be worth more online than they were in print.

I know very little about the economics of web ads so I’m in no position to comment here, but I certainly hope he’s right.

In any case, it’s a characteristically terrific piece by Fallows.  I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Sachs on our policy discourse

Economist Jeffrey Sachs has a column in Scientific American complaining about the dismal state of policy discourse in the U.S.

In general, our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems. Certainly it has also done so on climate change, with the nation’s expert community kept at arms length from the legislative drafting process. As with health care, the outcome has been House and Senate draft legislation that lacks public support. The same has been true on Afghanistan: the “war cabinet” has lacked real expertise on that country’s culture, economy and development challenges, and the U.S. public has remained uninformed of true options.

As a start toward better policy making, the administration should put forward a detailed analysis justifying each major proposed policy change. That white paper could form the basis for coherent public debate and reflection, along with Web sites where outside experts would be invited to share opinions accessible to the public. The public, too, would be invited to blog about that position paper. A version of the draft legislation understandable to lay readers would also be posted (alongside the more technical and inevitable legalese) and opened to online commentaries by experts and the public. The administration and Congress would rely more heavily on external advisory panels to tap into the nation’s wealth of expertise and to draw on the views of business, academia and other sectors of society.

In our governance systems today, the intrinsic complexity of the challenges easily outpaces the gut instincts and amateurism of the existing government machinery. I would not presume or recommend that decisions be left to the purported experts, who often represent special interests or have their own biases or narrow views. Still, a systematic vetting of policy options, with recognized experts and the public commenting and debating, will vastly improve on our current policy performance, in which we often fly blind or hand the controls over to narrow interests and viewpoints.

I agree that this is a problem, and that we could do better.  But count me unconvinced that an administration white paper will make much of a difference.

Civics vs. culture

A friend objected to my post Subsidizing the Style section on the grounds that I was discounting the social value of newspapers’ cultural content.  Fair enough.  The Times, and newspapers more generally, obviously contribute to our cultural conversation and that’s important.

But if tomorrow newspapers disappeared entirely which would suffer more: our civic discourse or our cultural discourse?

To me the answer is clear.  Newspapers are much more central to civic life than to cultural life, though their role in the latter is not to be discounted.

Consideration of that hypothetical has to include consideration of which types of content would be easily replaced by other sources.  I think in the case of culture-oriented feature content the web would likely provide ample replacement for the loss of newspapers.  In the case of beat reporting, investigative reporting, war reporting, etc. I’m not convinced.  Hence my focus on subsidizing those areas.

Subsidizing the Style section

Last post I wrote about my hesitancy to pay for The New York Times, despite being a loyal, regular reader.  I’d rather be asked to donate to keep quality journalism publicly available than forced to pay to privately consume it.

NYT Style 08

In this post I want to touch on another reason why I’m hesitant to pay for the Times.  Even if I decided to mentally justify the purchase of an annual NYT subscription as a charitable donation to support quality journalism (assuming a model in which this paid for some/most of the paper to be freely available) I’d still have serious reservations.

Much of the Times’ work fits my definition of core civic journalism, the often expensive reporting that is essential to a democracy.  But much of the its work does not.

In addition to its terrific international and political reporting, for instance, the Times has a Style section, a Travel section, a Food section, and plenty of other less essential feature-oriented segments.

Even if I approached a Times subscription as a charitable donation I’d be hard-pressed to justify that “donation”, knowing that some portion of my contribution would pay for those non-essential segments.*

Think of it this way: the disappearance of the Times would be a huge civic loss.  The disappearance of the Style section would be no loss at all.

Unless there were some way to feel confident that my dollars were directly subsidizing essential, socially important journalism, I’d be hard-pressed to subscribe out of the goodness of my heart.

*Traditionally the Style section – and the advertising it draws – has subsidized foreign bureaus, investigative reporting, etc.  That model worked well for a time.  Some might even argue that since these feature segments are popular, I need not worry that they require any subsidy; more likely, one might counter, they’re still subsidizing the quality journalism I’m worried about.  Possibly.  But I worry that as the current advertising-driven model continues to erode, that arrangement will end.  And all the incumbents who work for those socially unimportant portions of the paper will fight tooth-and-nail to secure an equal share of whatever revenue the Times can find, my subscription included.