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Sure, information wants to be free. But good journalism is expensive to produce

The companies that are winning in the new media landscape — mostly Google and Facebook — get content for free from their users, or other people on the internet. Including mainstream journalists.
The companies that are winning in the new media landscape — mostly Google and Facebook — get content for free from their users, or other people on the internet. Including mainstream journalists. AP

Critics of the “mainstream media” (or if you prefer, the “lamestream media”) are fond of saying that we’re going to be put out of business by competition from “new media” upstarts. Indeed, when I was a young blogger, I might even have made a few such pronouncements. Those critics — and I — were wrong. Traditional media can survive competition for readers just fine. It’s competition for advertisers that’s killing us.

For more than a century, magazines and newspapers were what’s known as a “two-sided market”: We sold subscriptions to you, our readers, and once you’d subscribed, we sold your eyeballs to our advertisers. That was necessary because, unbeknownst to you, your subscription dollars often didn’t even cover the cost of printing and delivering the physical pieces of paper. They rarely covered much, if any, of the cost of actually reporting and writing the stories printed on those pages. And you’d probably be astonished at how expensive it is to report a single, relatively simple story.

But that was OK, because we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs — a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. You guys got your journalism on the cheap, and advertisers got the opportunity to tell you about the fantastic incentive package available to qualified buyers on the brand-new Chevy Impala.

Then the internet came along, and suddenly we didn’t own the only pipeline anymore. Anyone can throw up a webpage. And over the past 20 years, anyone did — far more than could support actual advertiser demand.

The companies that won this rugby scrum weren’t the venerable old names. They weren’t even the new media companies with their frantic brigades of young staffers. The companies that are winning — mostly Google and Facebook — get content for free from their users, or other content creators on the internet. Including us.

Providing the rope with which someone else will hang you is obviously not a very good business model. Either we will find someone else to pay for the news and opinion and cartoons you consume, or we will go out of business.

That someone doesn’t have to be the reader. Some opinion writing can be produced as a personal loss leader for writers as “thought leaders” or “public intellectuals” — or simply as a hobby to blow off steam. Outside of the loss leader model, there are a few other options: Some reporting can be financed by donors as a philanthropic project. Some consumer product journalism can support itself through affiliate programs that provide rewards for selling merchandise. Some writing can be supported by “native advertising” sprinkled among the journalism so that it’s hard to tell them apart. All of those business models can produce good journalism.

But those strategies also have flaws. You need a pretty affluent demographic and a highly prestigious brand for the loss leader strategy to work. And while opinion writing is very important, it’s not the only important work we do. Academics and business executives are largely not going to pick up the unglamorous but necessary job of beat reporting. Philanthropic journalism can take up some of that slack, but it will be narrow in another way: Donor-funded journalism tends to be largely ideological, with donors looking for stories that flatter their opinions and produce measurable political “impact.” And as for these last two models, I presumably don’t have to explain the dangerous incentives built into them.

But if you don’t like those options, then you, dear reader, are going to have to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, many of you have gotten used to the idea that news ought to be free, and resent being asked to pay for it.

The old open internet was a marvelous gift to readers, a vast cornucopia of great writing upon which we’ve been gorging for the past two decades. But there’s a limit to how long one can keep handing out gifts without some reciprocity. At the end of the day, however much information wants to be free, writers still want to get paid.

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