Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

The dream world of the 'news is free' crowd

This post got its start from the following exchanges on Twitter:

(from @robertniles) RT @howardowens If news is essential to democracy, shouldn't it be free to the people who read it and need it to be informed citizens?

Robert Niles describes himself as a California website editor and journalist.

Howard Owens runs an online-only publication called The Batavian, which serves the community of Batavia, N.Y. It is located between Buffalo and Rochester.

I popped over to it last night. The lead story?

Online Exclusive: Spider Lamp from Max Pies at a $101 savings

So I tweeted the following to Niles:

@robertniles What's really important to democracy is a good price on spider lamps – http://is.gd/19OzH. Nothing that costs is truly free.

This seemed to rankle Mr. Niles. When I woke up this morning, I saw the following:

robertniles @billdinTO My loyalties are with people like @howardowens who are building new news businesses, not with cranks wishing for the past.

My responses were as follows:

@robertniles My, my! If using one's news space to flog lamps while saying news should be considered 'free' is the future, then …

@robertniles you dodged this 'Nothing that costs is truly free.' You're making me think the future is being built on a foundation of sand.

I suspect Owens must have been referring to me when he wrote this:

howardowens Why are some journalists so irrationally insane when the topic of paid content comes up? Completely out of touch with reality.

I charitably responded with the following:

billdinTO Why do some 'journalists' dodge the question of how news gets paid for? Completely out of touch with reality.

If you want to impress me, show me why my argument is wrong. If you want me to have a less-than-respectful opinion of you, dodge my questions/points and resort to ad hominem attacks.

However, the bigger point is the 'news wants to be free' crowd seems to be divorced from the reality that 'good journalism costs money to produce.' Hence, the 'dream world' part of my headline.

If there's no line between advertising and news in a new-world-order publication such as The Batavian, then that shows the cost of 'free' news.

'Free' news, supported only by advertising, is going to have to be really, really cheap to produce. The Toronto Star story on dangerous bacteria levels in soft ice cream? I suspect the futuristic Batavians won't be doing those types of stories.

Call me a crank who's clinging to the past (even though I've worked exclusively in online arms of news organizations since 1997), but I think communities will lose if those types of stories don't get produced by the new news businesses.

Afterward

Howard Owens expanded on the thoughts he made in the comments below in a June 24 post entitled Newspapers started small, cheap and with different standards.

I noticed it on June 26 and tossed up a reply of my own: Rationalizing a retreat to a time of much lower j-standards

Tue, June 23 2009 » Main Page, Media

4 Responses

  1. Anonymous June 24 2009 @ 12:44 am

    We've done a few investigative pieces (enterprise pieces would be more accurate). In fact, after one piece I did based on FOIL requests to state agencies, one highly placed local official said to me, “imagine, a news organization that actually does investigations,” which was clearly a slam at the local daily newspaper, or the Daily Snooze as just about everybody in town calls it.
    Yes, most of our news is done on the cheap. I take what I can get where I can get it, and while I have a couple of “enterprise” projects in development, for a multitude of reasons, I haven't been able to work on them the past several weeks.
    Currently, the only staff is me and my wife. My wife isn't fully engaged in the operation yet because we've been busy selling our house in Pittsford and relocating to Batavia. I split my time between news and ad sales.
    At the present moment, we're making a living.
    Your slam on our advertising model and “news on the cheap” shows a profound ignorance of the history of newspapers. Sorry to be blunt about it, but with a better understanding of the history of newspapers you might be a little more tolerant of where our development arch is at at the moment. I suggest you read up on the history of the penny press. Big news operations with big investigative staffs weren't born full throated in 1835. In fact, the newspaper as investigative organ is a relatively late 20th Century development. Up until the 50s or so, most investigation was confined to periodicals and books (few if any of the famous muckrackers, the founders of investigative journalism, were ever published in newspapers).
    I also suggest you read Lippmann's Liberty and the News to better understand what reforms he thought should be made in the news industry, which were subsequently largely misunderstood and sent 20th Century journalism on a rather incorrect course.
    It would be a mistake to assume that what you see of The Batavian today is what you'll see in 10 years, assuming survival. If we proceed according to plan, I suspect we'll employe a few journalists and have the resources to do the kind of journalism you seem to assume we're incapable of doing now.
    As for news being free, that would take an entire new post, but I'm tried of casting my pearls before swine on the paid content issue. The nonsense about expecting people to pay for news is so completely debunked both in my own blog as well as many others that I don't want to spend much time any longer. Besides, now that I'm completely online-only in my endevours it runs completely counter to my business interest to discourage publishers from charging for the content. I pray every day that they start on that foolhardy path. I have a business model ready for any aspiring publisher who wishes to take on paid-content newspaper web sites.

  2. Anonymous June 23 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    We've done a few investigative pieces (enterprise pieces would be more accurate). In fact, after one piece I did based on FOIL requests to state agencies, one highly placed local official said to me, “imagine, a news organization that actually does investigations,” which was clearly a slam at the local daily newspaper, or the Daily Snooze as just about everybody in town calls it.
    Yes, most of our news is done on the cheap. I take what I can get where I can get it, and while I have a couple of “enterprise” projects in development, for a multitude of reasons, I haven't been able to work on them the past several weeks.
    Currently, the only staff is me and my wife. My wife isn't fully engaged in the operation yet because we've been busy selling our house in Pittsford and relocating to Batavia. I split my time between news and ad sales.
    At the present moment, we're making a living.
    Your slam on our advertising model and “news on the cheap” shows a profound ignorance of the history of newspapers. Sorry to be blunt about it, but with a better understanding of the history of newspapers you might be a little more tolerant of where our development arch is at at the moment. I suggest you read up on the history of the penny press. Big news operations with big investigative staffs weren't born full throated in 1835. In fact, the newspaper as investigative organ is a relatively late 20th Century development. Up until the 50s or so, most investigation was confined to periodicals and books (few if any of the famous muckrackers, the founders of investigative journalism, were ever published in newspapers).
    I also suggest you read Lippmann's Liberty and the News to better understand what reforms he thought should be made in the news industry, which were subsequently largely misunderstood and sent 20th Century journalism on a rather incorrect course.
    It would be a mistake to assume that what you see of The Batavian today is what you'll see in 10 years, assuming survival. If we proceed according to plan, I suspect we'll employe a few journalists and have the resources to do the kind of journalism you seem to assume we're incapable of doing now.
    As for news being free, that would take an entire new post, but I'm tried of casting my pearls before swine on the paid content issue. The nonsense about expecting people to pay for news is so completely debunked both in my own blog as well as many others that I don't want to spend much time any longer. Besides, now that I'm completely online-only in my endevours it runs completely counter to my business interest to discourage publishers from charging for the content. I pray every day that they start on that foolhardy path. I have a business model ready for any aspiring publisher who wishes to take on paid-content newspaper web sites.

  3. Anonymous June 26 2009 @ 5:04 am

    Sorry for my delay in replying.
    My slam on your publication (and by extension, you) on the use of what most people would consider to be editorial space to flog lamps is well-deserved — no matter where you are in your development arc.
    If the price of delivering 'free' news is to pervert one's editorial space to serve advertising interests, then I'm afraid I'm not totally with the program.
    However, I hope your publication does mature, grow and develop the revenue base to provide a good living for yourself and your wife and to hire journalists and do classically good work of the one example I identified in the post — or perhaps a different type that is even better.
    Entrepreneurs are to be admired. It takes guts, given that 80 per cent of small businesses fail within five years (in Canada, anyway).
    But back to my main point for a moment: 'Nothing that costs is truly free.'
    Read that phrase again. The point is that 'free' is a bit of a misnomer, because the 'free' good will have hidden costs associated with it (see 'flogging lamps in one's editorial space').
    I think we can agree that in-depth, high-social-value journalism is expensive to produce.
    The question then becomes how to monetize it in a way that provides a reasonable return on investment.
    In the online world, charging directly for news is … exceedingly difficult.
    That's a given. I've seen millions wasted on strategically unsound subscription-based websites.
    I personally think the approach of some European publishers – to charge for certain services around the news – may well make more sense.
    Whatever one thinks of a subscription fee, the traditional revenue pillars of newspapers — circulation revenue, classified and display ads, other — allowed some of these businesses to survive for multiple generations, do some decent work in the process and make good profits.
    But I suspect we both agree the traditional print model is on the way out — and has in fact been eroding for some time.
    Unfortunately, I don't immediately see a new model that will preserve the best of what the old model could deliver, given the realities of the new world.
    If you're going to offer a 'free' product supported totally by advertising, it will have to be very cheap to produce.
    That's going to be limiting in the types of journalism that can be supported. That will hurt communities. That is a real cost — one that from where I sit, is blithely ignored by the 'news should be free' crowd.
    Thanks for the efforts to deepen my historical knowledge of U.S. newspapers, but believe it or not, I already knew some of that stuff.

  4. Anonymous June 26 2009 @ 1:04 am

    Sorry for my delay in replying.
    My slam on your publication (and by extension, you) on the use of what most people would consider to be editorial space to flog lamps is well-deserved — no matter where you are in your development arc.
    If the price of delivering 'free' news is to pervert one's editorial space to serve advertising interests, then I'm afraid I'm not totally with the program.
    However, I hope your publication does mature, grow and develop the revenue base to provide a good living for yourself and your wife and to hire journalists and do classically good work of the one example I identified in the post — or perhaps a different type that is even better.
    Entrepreneurs are to be admired. It takes guts, given that 80 per cent of small businesses fail within five years (in Canada, anyway).
    But back to my main point for a moment: 'Nothing that costs is truly free.'
    Read that phrase again. The point is that 'free' is a bit of a misnomer, because the 'free' good will have hidden costs associated with it (see 'flogging lamps in one's editorial space').
    I think we can agree that in-depth, high-social-value journalism is expensive to produce.
    The question then becomes how to monetize it in a way that provides a reasonable return on investment.
    In the online world, charging directly for news is … exceedingly difficult.
    That's a given. I've seen millions wasted on strategically unsound subscription-based websites.
    I personally think the approach of some European publishers – to charge for certain services around the news – may well make more sense.
    Whatever one thinks of a subscription fee, the traditional revenue pillars of newspapers — circulation revenue, classified and display ads, other — allowed some of these businesses to survive for multiple generations, do some decent work in the process and make good profits.
    But I suspect we both agree the traditional print model is on the way out — and has in fact been eroding for some time.
    Unfortunately, I don't immediately see a new model that will preserve the best of what the old model could deliver, given the realities of the new world.
    If you're going to offer a 'free' product supported totally by advertising, it will have to be very cheap to produce.
    That's going to be limiting in the types of journalism that can be supported. That will hurt communities. That is a real cost — one that from where I sit, is blithely ignored by the 'news should be free' crowd.
    Thanks for the efforts to deepen my historical knowledge of U.S. newspapers, but believe it or not, I already knew some of that stuff.