Tuesday, February 24, 2009

At the News-Press "Free" Is A Dirty Word

Monday's lead editorial in the Santa Barbara News-Press posed the following question:
What if all the daily newspapers in the United States just shut down their Web sites for a day or a week? They just went dark. There'd be no online content for broadcast outlets and the blogosphere to take for free and repackage as their own. They'd actually have to buy a paper.

The editorial undoubtedly was inspired by an essay written by Walter Issacson that recently appeared in Time magazine. The point of both the essay and the editorial being that newspapers have made a huge mistake in not charging for their online content.

In noting Issacson's authoritative voice in questioning the decision of newspapers to make their content available for free on the Internet, the editorial parenthetically notes that "The News-Press is one of few newspapers in the United States that resisted the herd mentality and has a subscription-only Web site."

So that explains why you've been able to continue to employ so many journalists to report for the paper!

According to the editorial: "That free online content, of course, often ends up on Internet sites that basically steal it and then put their own political or ideological spin on the stories. That's easier than doing the legwork to come up with original content through old-fashioned reporting."

"Old-fashioned reporting?" Right, we've seen a lot of that in the News-Press in the past two years.

Is News-Press owner Wendy McCaw trying to drum-up sympathy among the masses?

You may find this surprising, but McCaw, Sam Zell and the other multi-millionaire newspaper publishers in this country (as well as those who aren't) certainly have my sympathy.

I also feel sorry for people who were in the buggy whip business at the time the automobile came along as well as the folks who were running ice houses when the electric refrigerator was invented.

Nearly ten years into the 21st Century the daily newspaper is still delivered the same way the Boston News-Letter was delivered 300 years ago; by some poor working stiff schlepping it from house-to-house and leaving it on readers' doorsteps.

Sounds to me like that method of delivering the news survived far longer than it ever deserved to.

As far as I know, no one has ever been forced into the newspaper business at the point of a gun. When McCaw purchased the News-Press from The New York Times Company back in 2000, the paper, like just about every other paper in the country, had a website and "free" was, and still is, the dominant culture on the Internet.

While McCaw had the foresight to marry well and to divorce even better, she evidently was as blind as Stevie Wonder when it came time to write that $150 million check to acquire the News-Press.

McCaw couldn't see the writing on the wall or the pixels on the screen.

Does McCaw really expect the world to impose a moratorium on freely disseminating news on the web so she can make a few more bucks?

If so, that's a little like the Postal Service complaining that e-mail is destroying its business model.

If Wendy had her way we'd still be listening to music on 45's instead of on our iPods and we'd be renting our movies from Video Shmideo instead of Netflix. Are we really to believe that McCaw has an 8-track cartridge player in that Bentley of hers?

I too lament the demise of the Video Shmideos of the world but protecting someone's business model isn't adequate justification for holding back progress. Time waits for no one, and it certainly isn't about to wait for Wendy McCaw.

Bitching about bloggers who don't purchase papers will do little to get McCaw out of the dilemma that she finds herself in.

Unless you can qualify as a business expense deduction on your reader's tax return, as the Wall Street Journal does, charging for access to your website won't feed the big dog.

Instead of spending her time complaining, McCaw should be trying to figure out the Internet. There's more to it than simply putting whatever is printed in the paper up on the web that same day.

Putting aside all of the bad karma that McCaw has brought down on herself, there's much she could do to fortify the News-Press' web presence. How about some RSS or Twitter feeds? How about posting news stories on the web when the reporters file the story, rather than embargoing them until the next day when the paper appears on the newsstands?

Perhaps McCaw resents the fact that freedom of the press is no longer available only to those who can afford a press. What she paid a premium price for back in 2000, an outlet for her views and exposure of those views to a wide audience, is now available to anyone who has a blog or a website.

So Wendy, unless you're actually going to do something about this, please don't use your editorials to complain. That is unless you really are planning on taking down your News-Press website for a week.
© 2009 by Craig Smith and www.craigsmithsblog.com