Today’s New York Times has a story called Trying to Wean Internet Users From Free written by Joseph Nocera. Mr. Noceera did a good job of explaining some of the issues facing both newspapers and journalists due to the "ruthless efficiency of the Internet". He cites the music and telephony industries as victims so far and poses the question about whether newspapers are next.
We all know that newspaper circulation has been on a steady decline for twenty years and much has been written about the reasons for this. A continued decline of 2% per year would mean in fifty years there would be no newspapers. Financial pressures would cause failures long before that. I am making no predictions on the demise — most things that have been predicted to disappear are still with us. In the case of newspapers there are many attachments in addition to reading them — people use them to wrap fish, cover their head from rain, protect the floor when painting, pack dishes for shipping, and a myriad other things. What I would like to opine about is the future of journalists.
A journalist is a person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues and people. (definition from Wikipedia). Columnists go beyond just gathering and disseminating information — they add their opinion and thereby have an influence over individual and public opinion. What the New York Times has done with their new "TimesSelect" is to cordon off their top columnists and put them behind a wall that is only accessible to subscribers. If you are already a print subscriber (which costs hundreds of dollars per year) you can subscribe for free, otherwise the cost is $49.95 per year. So far they have attracted 270,000 — half of them from each category. The move is controversial from a business model point of view, but the bigger issue may be the influence aspect.
If the columnists are behind the curtain, will they continue to have influence when tens of millions of bloggers are out in the open? Not only are the bloggers more accessible but their content has context — each posting can have tags that reflect what their story is about. The tags make it easier to find the stories of interest and increase the likelihood of them being read. Some say, yes but they are just bloggers out there. How do we know they are creditable sources of facts and opinion? There are two answers to that question. First is that sites such as Technorati show how many inbound links there are to a particular blog. If a large number of people are reading a blog it is likely worth reading. By looking at the blog’s comments and by looking at other things the blogger has written you can get a feel for whether you want to trust that particular blogger. Contrast this with the columnist that the New York Times has behind the curtain. How do you know whether the columnist is creditable? Because they work for the New York Times? That may be good enough for some — not so for others. Do you know how many inbound links there are to the columnist’s story? No. But bloggers have strong opinions about things and are ranting or raving about things. And columnists are not? Columnists have no agenda? Their editors have no agenda? Will people pay $49.95 per year just to have the ability to browse the columnist’s story. Not likely. This is not a sanguine situation for columnists. So what are they to do?
Some will stay behind the curtain and hope that the management of the newspapers will figure out the right business model. Others will see a bigger opportunity by becoming bloggers themselves and then replace their current salaries by charging fees — not for their blogs but for speaking and consulting engagements. The years of experience and honed writing skills should attract a lot of attention in the blogosphere. That in turn will generate a lot of links. Companies, associations, and governments will pay fees to bring in expert points of view to their board rooms, customer meetings, and conferences. John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, told me ten years ago "give away the music and charge for the concerts". I think he had it right.