Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Steve Outing is getting warmer

Steve Outing is a bright, passionate guy with a journalism background with whom I've crossed swords a few times.

Over his time as an Editor and Publisher columnist and an independent blogger, he's argued that newspapers should essentially give up on a subscription model since the "free" horse left the barn a long time ago. His more recent arguments are more nuanced:
"I am not against online users paying for journalism. Rather, I don’t believe that enough people will pay for general-interest news online from a single news brand, like The Times, to pay for a well-staffed newsroom, except in certain non-competitive markets."
While it's encouraging that Outing and others like him are "not against online users paying for journalism," it continues to be discouraging that he, and they, are fighting against their own straw men.

He says that not enough people will pay for "general-interest news" online. He's probably right about that. However, most newspapers aren't general interest. Except for a handful of American newspapers with a truly global and/or national reach, newspapers are intensely local news providers that really don't care a whit about what's happening outside their circulation areas. We have long understood that local news is our Great Differentiator.

Most of us do it well enough to get paid for our product, regardless of how we deliver it. We do more local news than our competitors by a wide margin -- a magnitude of five, 10, or perhaps 20. So, while a local TV web site can give you repeats of the 30-second sound-bite news they put on the air, newspapers still own local journalism.

"...most won’t pay when the free alternative is one click away," writes Outing. If his assumption were true, so would be his conclusion. But there really aren't free alternatives in most markets. Yes, if you want "general news" of the sort provided by CNN or the Associated Press, there are many free options. But what if, say, you want to know what's really happening where you live? Unless you're satisfied with 12 minutes of local news a day, newspapers still lead -- arguably by a wider margin than ever.

Outing and others like to use examples like the Guardian in the U.K. and the New York Times. Of course, the Guardian has a particularly difficult problem -- it competes with the BBC, which is funded by a tax on TV sets. Using only the largest newspapers to represent the industry ignores the fact that 90+ percent of American newspapers are local and regional papers focused with a passion on local news.

Yes, it once was true that one of the main obstacles for potential competitors to local newspapers was the high entry cost -- the multi-million-dollar press, the delivery infrastructure, etc. Today, the obstacle is perhaps even bigger -- newspapers have the experience, the skills, the commitment to journalism and the institutional memory to produce a superior product. It's up to us to convince readers of the difference, and I'm optimistic that we are and will. Outing has less confidence in the news consumer than I do.

Outing chides us for going after people who steal news product by putting it on their web sites without permission. This is, perhaps, the oddest argument of all. That content is what separates us from our competitors. Why in the world wouldn't we go after people who steal it?

Finally, Outing refers to newspapers in "certain non-competitive markets." Which markets would that be? I'm not aware of any. Competition is fierce, and newspapers have to be serious about staying ahead. I fail to see how giving away the very content that separates us from our competitors is a good thing.

To Outing and others who agree with him, I suggest taking a look at how you argue your case. Instead of suggesting that we should, as Outing recently wrote, "figure out how to make the inevitable into a profit center and brand enhancer," they should get on the bandwagon of people that know where future profit will come from -- by remaining the essential sources for local news and information and asking a fair fee for that product.

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