News Has Always Been Free…

Image couresy of WSJ.com

I read an interesting post this morning by Michael Hickins on The Faster Times that posit that “Internet Isn’t Killing Papers, We Are“.  His basic premise: that the tech industry, and the web in particular with with the dotbomb era and sky high salaries and insane stock packages, inflated journalist salaries well beyond their regular levels.

Why? Because salaries had to be adjusted for the stock options that artificially inflated the potential compensation packages offered by the dot-com start-ups. How could Walgreen’s compete against Drugstore.com without compensating for the stock options that could make someone an instant millionaire? They couldn’t. The dot-com bubble burst threw some people out of work for a short period of time, but did nothing to bring salaries back into line.

So all of a sudden, in 2001, I went from making $45,000 for the print publication to $60,000 per year for the online version while working for the same publisher, Conde Nast. Not that I complained. At my last full-time position, I made $90,000 per year working as an editor at Ziff Davis Enterprise – and had reporters working for me who earned well above that. It’s public knowledge that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal earns over $1 million per year.

I posted the link via Twitter and was quickly reminded by Stephen Hadley that “…Most of my reporter friends who are losing their jobs aren’t overpaid. It’s just that the papers they work for no longer are able to sell advertising to support their staffs. Ad dollars are moving.”

That, to my mind is the crux of the matter. You will definitely spot other problems throughout the newspaper industry, but the real problem right now is ad revenue going away.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a myriad of other compounding issues here, such as circulation declines, outdated technology, Jurassic management, etc., and certainly those are all factors.  But the real problem comes down simply to a matter of dollars not coming in the doors.

Brian Carr pointed me towards the AnnArbor.com launch – a Michigan newspaper opened a new site, using 54  staff members. (according to their site masthead)  Ponder this: 54 newspaper folk took a couple months to launch a site using what appears to be a bog standard MoveableType installation.  Frankly, given part of a weekend and a 12 pack of Mountain Dew, I could have outdone them.  Seriously…

The big problem for journalists is this: even though Hickins may tell us that the web got us big salaries back in the day, the sad truth is this: the prevailing thought on the Internet today is that content is free.  As content originators, that means our work isn’t under valued, if FLAT OUT ISN’T VALUED.

Back in the day, I got $500 for a blog post.  Granted, those were some excellent blog posts, but right now I do basically the same thing for free.

Look at the fiasco a few weeks back when Chris Anderson, of Long Tail fame, and EIC of Wired Magazine lifted huge sections of wikipedia articles for his new book “Free: the Past and  Future of a Radical Price” (and yes, he’s talking about free content…). If a Wired Magazine editor can’t even manage to properly cite Wikipedia, what does that say for his view of the value of content?  Oh, right, I guess we should re-read the title of that book…

The real problem inherent in all of this is that after we’re done killing off all the reliable primary news sources, such as newspapers, television news, or even magazines, is that we’ll find we’re left with a gaping void.  The thought is that blogs will take over.  unfortunately, while blogs are generally interesting sources of commentary and opinion, I see very few that provide anything like news, and when and where they do it, they generally do not do it reliably.  You can’t count on today’s source to have good info, or any info, tomorrow, and you definitely should not expect extensive enough general coverage that will allow you to get a good picture of the world, or any small part of it for that particular piece of time.

Okay, I’m sure one of you is thinking now about the Iranian Election a few weeks ago, and how it broke on Twitter.  In fact, it would have broken on major news outlets as well, but it got bumped for the MJ Media Circus.  Even so, Twitter may be many things, but it’s not a reliable primary news source.  Yes, it may provide a lead here or there, but any good journalist knows, that’s just where the story starts…not where it ends.

Getting back to the original theme here, I think now that we can see that news generation was a loss leader for newspapers.  It took a lot of effort to do it right, but it was something they could monetize through ad revenue.  Today, we need to forget about how content gets delivered, and remember that content generation is still a valuable and necessary product.  When we rediscover a proper way to monetize it, the world for journalist and everyone will be a better place.

Because none of us wants to work for free…

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