Debunking the “original sin” of online newspapers

Whenever newspaper executives get together to bemoan the fate of their industry, someone inevitably brings up the so-called “original sin” of the online news business — namely, a failure to charge for content when the web was new. One of the latest manifestations of this idea appears in an upcoming e-book called “Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future,” from former Wall Street Journal (s nws) executive Richard Tofel, which looks at the failure of newspapers on a number of levels. But this theory that newspapers could have somehow won a war against the internet if they had just charged users for content misses the point — the point being that the media game is now being played according to different rules.
Although Tofel’s book isn’t available yet (it will be available for download on Wednesday), media blogger Jim Romenesko has some excerpts from the text, and among other things the author appears to be suggesting that newspapers could have saved themselves from certain doom if they had only continued the practice of charging for their content when the internet came along. As Tofel puts it:

How, as a visitor from another planet might ask, did a large industry that had successfully charged customers for its product for more than a century come to decide to give that product away and thus threaten its very existence?

Putting content online for free was not a sin, nor was it original

Tofel notes in the comments section of Romenesko’s blog that his view of the evolution of newspapers and the web is more nuanced than just believing that they could have saved themselves by putting up paywalls, but this still sounds like the old “original sin” argument that has been rattling around in media circles for years now. One of the first to put it into words was former newspaper editor Alan “Newsosaur” Mutter, who said “the Original Sin among most publishers was permitting their content be consumed for free on the web,” and suggested that recovering from this sin was going to be just as hard as recovering from the sins committed in the Garden of Eden.
Another outlet that took up the idea of an “original sin” was the American Journalism Review, which wrote about how the failure to charge for content when newspaper websites first appeared was a decision that doomed the industry to poverty and irrelevance. As one journalism professor quoted in the piece put it:

When newspaper publishers decided they couldn’t charge for content, Reisner says, they started giving it away, and wound up “being sluts who’d put out for any old Google that came their way.”

This idea is part of the same conceptual framework as News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s continued insistence that Google and other online news aggregators are “stealing” content from newspapers, and that they should be forced to pay for it. Both viewpoints are an attempt to reimpose the traditional structure of the media business — in which newspapers had something close to a monopoly on the news, and also controlled one of the primary platforms through which it was distributed.

Neither of those things are the case now, as Om has described in his posts about the “democratization of distribution,” and as I’ve pointed out in posts about the disruption of the business of journalism, and what the new world of media looks like. News sources can “go direct” and publish their own content, as can anyone with a blog or a Twitter account, and new media entities can be born from virtually nothing — as the rise of The Huffington Post (s aol) indicates. News now comes to readers in hundreds of different ways, not just through one or two platforms, and in the long run that is fundamentally a good thing.

Charging for content would only have delayed the inevitable

It’s also worth noting, as some did when the “original sin” idea first appeared, that newspapers have never made the bulk of their income from readers who pay for content. Subscription prices and newsstand sales have always been subservient to advertising, and in some cases giving content away can be a totally viable business model, provided advertisers are willing to pay enough for the attention of those readers. That value proposition worked in print, but it fails online — and that failure would not have been any less painful if newspapers had charged for access.
If anything, the original sin of newspapers was a failure to appreciate all the ways in which the internet was going to fundamentally change the nature of their business, and a failure to try and adapt to those changes quickly enough. In some ways, trying to perpetuate the old model of charging for their content — in the case of classified ads, for example — delayed that process of adaptation, and thereby allowed someone without preconceived notions about the marketplace (namely, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark) to win without even trying to disrupt the media industry.
Would any of this have changed if newspapers had simply charged for their content? No. Paywall fans like to point to the Wall Street Journal and The Economist as examples of how media outlets can charge users and remain financially healthy — or even to the New York Times, which has convinced about 325,000 people to subscribe and is estimated to be making about $80 million or so from the venture. But those examples ignore the fact that not every newspaper can be the WSJ or the NYT or The Economist, and they also ignore the fact that the revenue picture at New York Times is far from rosy, despite its paywall.
Success in the news business isn’t going to come from staring longingly into the past and thinking about some mythical Golden Age in which newspapers all charged for their content and the internet was not a disruptive force. The disruption has happened, and the business has been irrevocably altered — if they want to survive, newspapers should spend more time thinking about how to adapt, and less time dreaming about how much better life would be if only they had put up a paywall 10 years ago.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Gabriel S. Delgado and