Friday, October 15, 2010

Let the Debate Begin Part II

This week's expert is a former professor of mine at Virginia Commonwealth University. He actually gave me my first exposure to online reporting in a class that I took that focused on covering Virginia's General Assembly. The project was the content base for an online magazine named On The Lege. I also have considered him a mentor and someone who's opinion I take very seriously. His name is Jeff South and here is a link to his bio.

I did a Q and A with Mr. South via email and here is the full text of the interview:

Crocker: In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of charging readers for online news?

South: The major "pro," of course, is revenue: It's expensive to report the news, and news organizations need an adequate income stream to do the job. It seems discriminatory and counterproductive to charge some readers (people who buy the printed newspaper) and not others (online readers).

The major "con" is that charging for online news will drive away many readers; too many people expect online information to be free. Another con -- or at least a challenge -- is that news organizations must find an easy way to charge (probably some kind of micropayment system).

Crocker: Did newspapers wait too long to try to charge?
South: In hindsight, it's easy to say that. But I was working in a newsroom (the Austin American-Statesman, part of the Cox Newspapers chain) at the dawn of online news, and in fact, many papers did charge initially: Cox, for example, partnered with the online service Prodigy -- so you DID have to pay to access the Statesman online. At the time, critics were saying newspapers OUGHT to be free online -- that "free" was the default expectation in the Net's open-source environment. So the Statesman, like many papers, went from paid (Prodigy) to free (on the Web) and perhaps now is considering returning to some kind of "charging" model.

If newspapers waited too long to do something, maybe it was to explain to people why this free model isn't sustainable. We should have been warning people that the day of reckoning would eventually arrive ... that, in fact, you get what you pay for.
Crocker: How's charging going to stop sites like the Drudge Report from subscribing, cutting and pasting news articles? Do you see that as potentially creating copyright issues?
South: Yes, this is a big problem. Fair use allows Drudge and other online news sources to excerpt or summarize snippets of news stories appearing elsewhere; and in many cases, all people want to read is the excerpt or summary. The news industry could go after copyright violators, but, as we've seen with the lawsuits filed against music downloaders by the Recording Industry Association of America, that is a bad PR move.

Crocker: Will charging for online content bring people back to print editions or push them to news sites such as CNN, Fox, and other network news sites? Or will charging create a domino effect, where those sites will begin to charge?
South: I don't think we will ever return to print editions. In my opinion, the sooner the newspaper industry abandons the "paper" part, the better. I think the solution will involve a system in which a large number of news websites charge for content; maybe they can institute a "passport" system that allows a registered user to access stories from a variety of national and local sites. (For example, a local newspaper might partner with CNN and the -- so that a paying reader has easy access to news at all three sites.) I realize that there are numerous obstacles to creating such a system (including possible legal/antitrust issues).
Crocker: Will a change like this signal the near end of print media or will charging online fail disastrously?
South: I don't think print will ever completely disappear, but it will be a niche product -- like music CDs are becoming in today's iTunes age. In some cases, charging online may fail. It may depend on the news organization's brand in the community: If people see the product as worth paying for, I think they will. If they see it as digital fishwrap -- well, they won't pay.

As stated earlier, my opinion and thoughts about paying for clicks will be revealed at the end of this project. Mr. South's opinions have given me much to consider as did last week's comments from Jim Brady
Something I found to be interesting this week: 
Pressure on the Presses from the Wall Street Journal. An interactive piece about the state of the top 50 circulated papers in the U.S.

Coming next week: 
I am not going to jinx this by announcing who my next expert is, but I can assure you that those of you who have an interest in the history of the Internet and newspapers should really enjoy this post. If it doesn't work out, I may be forced to post a video of me shamelessly crying and writing a 500 hundred word apology.

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