Media Biz: What will happen when print media dies?

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The cover story on Time magazine says it all. Above the image of a newspaper wrapped around a fish, the headline was simple and to the point: "How to Save Your NEWSPAPER."

Quite apart from newsprint's traditional role as the seafood wrapper of choice, the photo also carried Godfather-esque connotations: if traditional print media isn't sleeping with the fishes yet, it is well on its way. With the next generation of the Kindle soon to be in stores, and a passel of competitors speeding toward the market, the old days of hard-copy newspapers and magazines seem to be on the wane. Looking forward, as more and more consumers get used to reading off a screen, the decline of print media is sure to accelerate.

However, even if print media is on its deathbed, traditional journalistic practices still have a lot to offer. While blogs are certainly capable of offering transcendently amazing insight into the issues of our age (ahem), they are still reliant on traditional news-gathering: for the most part, this involves reporters traveling to the places where news happens, approaching sources, and compiling information. These are specialized skills and capital-intensive activities; while blogs may be able to offer useful insight into America's wars, most of them can't afford to send a correspondent to Baghdad.

As Steve Brill notes on Poynter Online, high-quality content doesn't come cheap, and the current business model used by most online publications is almost entirely based on advertising revenue. Contrasted with the traditional print media model, which uses advertising, subscriptions, and newsstand sales to fund content, the current online path is almost guaranteed to fail.

On the flip side, the few publications that offer their content online generally charge a great deal of money. Cook's Illustrated, for example, charges $25 for an annual website membership, or $4 per month. Speaking as a proud cheapskate, Cooks' price is a deal-killer, particularly when epicurious.com offers most of Gourmet and Bon Appetit's recipes for free. Long story short, why should customers pay subscription prices for sources that they are only going to occasionally use? This goes double for situations in which comparable material is available for free.

Time's Walter Isaacson continues this theme. As he points out, Apple's (AAPL) iTunes demonstrates that many consumers are willing to pay for content as long as the price is negligible. Perhaps, Isaacson argues, if readers had the option of paying a couple of dollars for a yearly online subscription or a few cents for each article, they might be willing to do so. What's more, liberated from the traditional, capital-intensive practices of printing, transportation, and distribution, newspapers could save a great deal of money. Further, with a vastly expanded client base, the potential for revenue is almost unlimited. After all, if customers in London, Manila, and Abu Dhabi could get the New York Times delivered to their virtual desktops for mere pennies, then the famed Gray Lady could find herself with billions of new paying customers.

The question, of course, is how to make this happen; unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. Isaacson points out that eBay's (EBAY) Paypal, the big dog of online payment, is pretty much useless for transactions of less than a dollar. Brill, on the other hand, advocates a payment portal along the lines of iTunes. For those of us who remember the days before Paypal had a stranglehold on auction payments, the idea of multiple vendors seems attractive. Personally, I'd like to see online payments dealt with through some version of online banking. Basically, a virtual credit/debit card that could be directly accessed through one's bank account would be ideal, and would foster some healthy competition.

Regardless of which plan (or collection of plans) emerges victorious, it's pretty clear that something needs to happen. As recent politics has aptly demonstrated, the absence of an aggressive and competent news media can be devastating to the political (and economic!) health of a society. If paying a few pennies for online content is the price of the news, then I'm sure we can all spare some dimes.
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