Print News Media to the Rest of Us: Somebody's Gotta Pay

Last Updated Jul 24, 2009 10:23 AM EDT

Two stories this morning point out how desperate the print news business is to get someone to pony up cash for their product: You do have to applaud these organizations' efforts to find additional online revenues; they do have to try to find ways to squeeze cash from what they've been giving away, particularly as other revenue streams wither. (In the Times' case, not only did the company announce a 30 percent decline in overall ad revenue, but a 15 percent decline in online ad revenue. It turned a profit in the second quarter due to aggressive cost-cutting.)

But, there's also a big problem with both these attempts: you have to have a market in order to charge for something, and it's unclear whether either the Times, or the AP, has enough of a market for what they're trying to sell. Given the lay of the land today -- where content is mostly free -- It's like charging people to walk down one side of the street. As long as the other side of the street isn't charging, people will just switch over.

As is well known, the Times has tried to charge for some content in the past, and the effort failed. If the Times does end up having a market of those who would pay, my bet is those who do so will pay mostly out of fear that if they don't, the organization will go away. That's not a very promising way to make a market as it creates one only amongst the true loyalists.

In the AP's case, it has two markets: its members, and sites that might use, and pay for the content. While it can wrap the software around AP-produced content, the organization also needs to convince a critical mass of its 1400 members to be a part of this effort. However, judging from this story about the initiative, it appears there's a sizable base of news organizations which have doubts about what the AP is doing, particularly when it comes to wanting licensing agreements for small abstracts that appear in search engines. Not only are those a traffic-driver, but it's unclear, from a legal perspective, whether the AP is taking its definition of use too far.

As for the market of those who might pick up AP content, it's obvious that this would essentially limit distribution of content by the AP and its members. While some sites have the money to pay for content, they wouldn't necessarily do so; there is already too much free content out there. Others, for economic reasons, would have to decline.

Nice try, guys, but I'd be surprised if either of these initiatives worked.

(MINOR UPDATE: Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis just provocatively tweeted, "It is time to replace the Associated Press and there are many ways to do it.")

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