People will happily pay for entertainment, but they’re reluctant to pay for news. That’s a big reason why the newspaper business has lost nearly 60 percent of its revenue since 2005, why Newsweek magazine shuttered its print edition and why traditional media outlets in general are struggling.
Think of newspapers and magazines as bundles.
Yes, the bundle contains news — but it also has comics, horoscopes, ads, movie reviews, coupons, obituaries, recipes and dozens of other items. Serious-minded journalists sometimes forget that a lot of people care more about those things than about following the latest news from the Middle East, the Legislature or the school board.
What the Internet has done is decouple those tasty treats from the news. In the old days — in other words, until about 2005 — you had to buy the news in order to buy the fun. Maybe you immediately pulled out the coupons and tossed the rest of your newspaper. But you still paid for the full package that included eat-your-vegetables news coverage.
Now you can eat your candy without eating your vegetables. People can get their coupons on the Web, read dozens of movie reviews for free (and contribute their own thoughts via social media) and gorge themselves on sports, fashion, celebrity gossip and other topics online.
Here’s just one example of the situation facing the news business, courtesy of the insightful Alan Mutter’s “Newsosaur” blog. The New York Times has won high praise in the news business for successfully building a base of digital subscribers — people who pay to read the Times online.
The Times currently has about 725,000 digital subscribers, accounting for roughly one-third of its total circulation. It’s been an unquestioned success story. But as Mutter points out, Netflix has 29 million subscribers — or 40 times as many as the New York Times. And Netflix built that customer base in just six years.
Serious news consumers hold out hope that nonprofit, online news organizations like MinnPost can fill the gaps left by the hollowing out of traditional media (most newspaper and local TV newsrooms have one-third to one-half fewer journalists than a decade ago). Many of these nonprofit news sites are funded by startup grants from foundations, but the jury is out on whether readers will pony up to fund the sites once initial foundation funding expires.
An off-topic note: I want to publicly say goodbye to Star Tribune Editor Nancy Barnes, who’s leaving for a new job in Houston, and thank her for steering the paper through tough times. She made it better; she was clearly the driven, focused leader the Strib needed in its moment of greatest peril. Anyone who cares about this valuable community institution should be grateful to her. And whoever succeeds her has a tough act to follow.
But really, Nancy — Houston?