Online content isn’t free

Beau Dure, excellent USA Today soccer and mixed martial arts writer and longtime virtual friend of this typist, made some good points in a comment about my recent post Newspapers’ fatal error, which talked about the industry’s longtime failure to understand and engage with the Internet.

And which wasn’t that recent. It’s been a busy week.

“The papers that ‘got it’ fared no better than those that didn’t,” Beau wrote, citing the Raleigh News & Observer, which practically invented online news with and which recently offered buyouts to every employee. “Papers who started blogging and trying to open up reader input in 2003 rather than 2006 aren’t in any better shape.”

He goes on to say, “We could place plenty of blame on the ad side but (A) it’s only with the bias of 20/20 hindsight that we could pin that on the editorial side and (B) I’m not sure papers could’ve invented Craigslist, anyway.”

That echoes a comment by another virtual friend, TVerik, a frequent poster at the Baseball Primer Newsblog, where the piece was linked to.

He says my assertion that “there’s no reason that a newspaper couldn’t have conceived of Craigslist misses the point. The reason for the breakaway success of CL is that it’s completely free. An up-and-coming newspaper man would have been laughed out of the executive offices had he suggested a virtually revenue-free way to destroy a major revenue source for the newspaper business.”

So, some replies.

First of all, papers that started blogging in 2003 were about eight years late to the game, and were simply tacking blogs on top of their print-newspaper-on-the-Web model.

Just because, which really was great in its day, didn’t make it doesn’t mean nobody could have made it. One valiant effort that ultimately failed does not mean that the entire industry would have failed had it turned its considerable brainpower to trying to figure out a model for this new medium.

Part of’s business, as I understand the history, was being an Internet service provider. That arm of it was later sold off.

I don’t know enough about the ISP business — I figure “nothing” is not enough — to really say this, but it seems to me that was the business for newspapers to get into. Everyone who complains about readers who are unwilling to pay for content on the Web is missing the point that readers are paying for content on the Web. We pay our ISPs.

Newspapers and other Web sites — like this one — might be giving away content, but we’re not giving it to readers. We’re giving it to ISPs.

As a reader, I’m not getting the newspaper and everything else I read for free. I pay for my Internet service every month. Like a lot of people I read a lot on the Web while I’m at work — though it should be noted, especially by my bosses, that that’s part of my job and I never, ever read a single word on the clock that isn’t work related. So I don’t pay for what I read at work, but my company does. Someone does.

Newspaper publishers are whining to the Senate and anywhere else someone will listen about how the Internet hasn’t provided and can’t provide a sustainable business model for journalism. But it has. ISPs are happily selling Internet access to those of us who want to see what’s on the Web, as well as get our e-mail and instant messages and share pirated movies.

The newspapers are mostly giving away their journalism — to the ISPs — and that seems like an issue between the newspapers and the ISPs, not between the newspapers and us.

But the newspapers have pretty much always given away the journalism. Back when you paid a quarter for your daily paper, you were buying the thing, the hunk of paper with ink marks on it, maybe a rubber band. You’re still buying the thing now, the Internet service.

The newspapers got boxed out of the thing-selling business is what happened. Tough break, but maybe they should have been thinking about how to use this new medium rather than spending years attacking it as nothing more than a lair for pedophiles and basement-dwelling freaks.

I don’t think it’s “20/20 hindsight” to place blame on the editorial side. The point of the piece was that I saw it coming, and I was a nobody with almost no experience. I agree the failure is probably just as great on the ad side. I just didn’t see it firsthand, so I don’t have much to say about it.

To answer TVErik, papers wouldn’t necessarily have invented Craigslist, sure. Craigslist is a nonprofit. Why would papers invent something that makes no money to replace something that does? But newspapers could have invented something. If they’d come up with a version of classified advertising that wasn’t free but was significantly cheaper and better than the old print model, there might not have been the demand that led to Craigslist being invented.

Then again, Craigslist might have happened anyway. I don’t know. We’ll never know what would have happened in the last 15 years if newspapers had been smart, will we?

1 thought on “Online content isn’t free”

  1. How do you feel about net neutrality? Do you think a system where the newspapers are charging the ISPs could work with neutral broadband networks?

    I also know nothing about the ISP business, but I’ve thought about this before. Back when people were getting online through Prodigy, should the New York Times have made some kind of deal where you could only read the New York Times online if you were connecting through Prodigy?

    And could something like this work in 2009? Could my employer, AOL, make my writing available only to people who used AOL to log onto the Internet? Or could a blogger who, unlike me, is actually popular enough to get some readers to change their ISPs (I dunno, Perez Hilton?) sign an exclusive deal with Verizon so that the only way to read his site was if you were getting online through Verizon?

    I’m not sure how the technology would work and I’m not sure if it’s legal, but it’s an interesting idea.

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