Change has already arrived in 2010. Hope is right behind it.
Let’s begin with the beleaguered newspaper industry, where survival may depend on going “back to the future.” Basically, publishers are hoping they can succeed with a business model that’s already failed broadcasters. They’ll give their product away and hope to make money on the ads.
Here’s how it works: The Washington Times started 2010 by slimming down. “The newsroom will be smaller and we will focus on our strengths, which are national security, national politics, geo-strategic areas and cultural coverage, in addition to the opinion pages and investigation,” Times Publisher/President Jonathan Slevin told Editor & Publisher magazine last month. Ironically, E & P itself went out of business a week later.
The Times will also be given away to key policymakers. In fact, more than half of its circulation will be free. It joins the D.C. Examiner and Express (published by The Washington Post) as free daily newspapers in the nation’s capital.
Recall that this is the model television stations used for decades. Viewers had to pay the upfront cost of a set, but then the programming was free for the taking. Put up a set of rabbit ears and pull up a chair.
Even when cable TV came along, many in the industry thought it would be a useful tool for delivering programming to those who lived to far out in the country to pick up a broadcast signal, but few really believed that viewers would be willing to actually pay for television.
Of course, that’s not how it worked out.
Cable cost money, but it paid off by delivering higher quality programs, movies and sports. Eventually the idea of “free TV” went out the window. Of course, so did the idea that we’d all watch the same thing at the same time. In the 1970s, there were nights when more than a third of the TVs in the country were turned to terrible episodes of “Laverne & Shirley.” Today, excellent programs such as “The Wire” and “30 Rock” survive even though they draw just a few million viewers.
Of course, in this scenario, papers such as The Washington Post are akin to HBO in the 1970s. They will keep charging even though many of their competitors are free. In fact, the newsstand price of the Post has increased from 35 cents in 2007 to 75 cents today. It will attempt to convince readers that it offers superior value: better news coverage, sharper columnists, more comics, whatever.