Monday, April 20, 2009

'Free Is Not a Business Model,' Except When It Is

THERE are plenty of dubious clichés in the air as the ongoing debate unfolds about the future, if any, of newspapers. One I find especially irksome is, "Free is not a business model." That's part of the setup for an assertion that newspapers made a big mistake not charging for online content and now need to reverse course.
Actually free content, advertising-supported, has been a pretty good business model for decades. We call it broadcast. McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt made the connection in a recent earnings conference call, as I noted in an earlier Biz Blog post. (Pruitt went on to argue that print, with its traditionally low circulation pricing, is almost totally dependent on advertising for earnings, as newspaper Web sites obviously are.)
I am beginning to think in the last month or two that free is emerging as a business model in a second sense. One sequel to the closing of papers in Denver and Seattle has been quick organization of some of the displaced reporters to new Web sites.
In Seattle's case, Seattle PostGlobe, launched this week, competes with the Post-Intelligencer's own efforts to continue as a scaled-back, online-only news service. In Denver Times has been up and running since mid-March and just issued a press release claiming 70,000 users its first month and 311,000 page views. Both ventures hope to build a sustainable base of revenues and contributions, but they are being started mainly with the sweat equity of contributors.
I don't have an exhaustive list, but there are other serious news Web sites, such as the St. Louis Beacon, that are largely written by the ranks of the bought-out and laid-off. Key to MinnPost's game plan is having most of the content written by former reporters at the two Twin Cities dailies, who work for much-reduced pay compared to what they used to make.
This phenomenon is not brand-new. A first generation of online sites such as the New Haven Independent, The Tyee, Coastsider, Chi-Town Daily News and H2otown had a journalist-entrepreneur or two at the helm and a supporting cast of volunteers or lightly-paid beginners.
Jan Schaffer found in her excellent survey of citizen media sites that few were a significant business success or likely to become one. Yet purposeful founders were relatively content, confident they could keep running and contribute journalistically to their communities.
I do not minimize the loss of professional newsgathering as the newspaper layoff/buyout binge continues, along with closings and threatened closings. But some of those shown the door have an impulse to keep on reporting and writing, even if paid only a little or not at all.
I'm not sure these efforts have a business model beyond nearly free -- freely contributed and free to consume. But nearly free professionalism may emerge alongside blogs, cit-j, hyperlocal and the rest as part of the replacement package in communities that are underserved by legacy media organizations.
If it's a distinct genre, likely to grow, I suppose it merits a name of its own. How about "post-professional journalism?" Definition: news and analysis produced for free or at greatly reduced rates by profesionals who have lost their newspaper jobs.

By Rick Edmonds

Source: Poynter Online

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