I consider myself fortunate to have been included in a gathering last week of about four dozen very smart news, media, business, non-profit and foundation leaders for a three-day conference at the Aspen Institute, "Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism."
Participants included media-industry stars from old media (e.g., the executive editor of The Washington Post), to online media (publisher of Salon.com, the "oldest" new-media content company), to foundation rock stars (president of the Knight Foundation, senior advisor to the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation), to young entrepreneurs (founder of The Extraordinaires, an on-demand volunteerism-by-mobile-phone initiative), to government officials past and present (former chairman of the FCC, current FTC chairman), to provocateurs like Craig Newmark (Craigslist founder), Esther Dyson and Jeff Jarvis.
The gathering generated some controversy on blogs and in the Twittersphere for the panelists' lack of diversity and lack of youth. And, frankly, going into the conference I had a premonition that this august and experienced group of leaders would deliver unwise (to my way of thinking) recommendations.
But my fears were largely abated. I can't predict with any certainty that the newspaper industry will deploy some of the best ideas to come out of Aspen, but my sense is that most news executives aren't planning to drive off a cliff with a last-ditch effort to fight back against the nature of the Internet and its free-distribution ways. I'm a bit more confident that they'll adapt, though I still expect to see more newspapers go out of business.
The (not-quite-) great paid debate One of the big "battles" I expected to see unfold was between paid vs. free online news content, especially since some recent statements from news industry leaders have tended to frame the issue in black-and-white terms. (e.g., Rupert Murdoch of News Corp.: "Quality journalism is not cheap and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalizing its ability to produce good reporting. ... We can be platform-neutral but never free.")
Then there was the announcement earlier this year of media heavyweights Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz's Journalism Online initiative, expected to debut this fall with an e-commerce system to allow news publishers to charge while all using a common and flexible payment technology that works across news Web sites. In a June speech, Brill said: "We just have to return to one of the oldest principles of that business model -- that those who consume journalism pay something for it."
Post-Aspen, it feels like that's mostly public posturing to try to influence search engines and big online aggregators of news links to direct more money toward the news providers. Because as the discussion evolved in the swanky Aspen Institute conference rooms, there were more shades of gray exposed.
10% is the limit Will news publishers charge for content online? Almost certainly, yes, for some of it -- actually, for a very small part of it. I believe there is consensus among most (not all) news publishers that they can and should charge online users (and mobile, too) for the extra-special, can't-find-it-elsewhere, this-will-make-you-more-money-or-improve-your-life content they produce. And most of the news content that is the traditional fare of newspapers will remain free online, supported by advertising and additional revenue streams, and benefiting from, as Jeff Jarvis would say, Googlejuice.
If a news publisher can get 10% (probably less) of their most loyal online users to pay for something, then that's one more significant revenue source to make up for the lesser value of online ads and newspapers' losses in classified advertising.
The 10% amount is significant as an upper limit of how much of a devoted audience might be convinced to pay. Vivian Schiller, currently CEO of National Public Radio but formerly a digital executive at the New York Times, told fellow Aspen panelists that what she experienced at NYTimes. …