What to do with the Newspaper?

By Kay Steiger 

Walter Isaacson has a piece in Time that talks about a micropayment system that could “save” newspapers. Overall, I don’t think that Isaacson’s proposition is that bad — he acknowledges that paying for a subscription every time you click on a link is annoying and untenable. Instead, he longs to place the payment burden back on the consumer, albeit a relatively minor one. He proposes paying a nickel for one article, ten cents for a whole day’s edition, and something like $2 for a whole month. Still, Isaacson seems to have a real disdain for advertising:

Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME, disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula “morally abhorrent” and also “economically self-defeating.” That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue.

This disdain for the advertising dollar seems to forget the entire history of media. Radio was only tenable via advertising revenue; subscription television, despite cable fees, is heavily dependent on ad revenue; and even print media came to subscribers at a heavily subsidized cost. Ultimately, what we’re facing is an advertising crisis.

It’s true that if some kind of micropayment system were made more convenient, ala the iTunes model that Isaacson suggests, (some) consumers might begin actually paying for the intellectual property they consume. But ultimately media is dependent on some other form of income. For newspapers, it was classifieds. For radio, it’s ad spots. Once advertisers are willing to pay as much for online advertising as they are for print advertising, the crisis will be nearly averted. For non-profit media, this means large donors are the means of paying for the information.

It’s historically true that subscriptions or newsstand fees of any kind are heavily subsidized by another form of revenue. That means it’s unreasonable to expect media consumers to take on the entire burden of the cost of information production.