A lively debate has sprung up on the idea that the New York Times‘ top reporters and writers would be more successful if they were running their own paper.
On the face of it, these plans have much in their defence. For example, they would create a far more dynamic institution than the monolithic New York Times currently is, allowing it to respond more swiftly to market demands. But would they solve the problem of long-term financial sustainability?
Michael Arrington writes at Techcrunch that he believes the New York Times’ top 50 writers could write a paper delivering 50 per cent of the value achieved by today’s 9,300 staff. So, half the New York Times, but at a fraction of the cost.
Meanwhile, on the Daily Telegraph’s blog, Andrew Keen suggests a similar plan, although his plan is to maintain the New York Times as the paper it is, just with far fewer staff – less drastic than Arrington’s plan, but with a similar outcome of slashed overheads leading to financial stability.
But these plans don’t solve the fundamental problem of earning a return from online content. At present, venture capital backed aggregators, blogs and social media are competing on price for the delivery of news, and the price they have chosen is free. Traditional newspapers cannot compete because their content costs more to create and they don’t have backers with deep pockets. A great description of the ‘overheads’ underpinning traditional reporting is given by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post.
But how free is free? Those investors supporting the technologies that have so ‘disrupted’ the newspaper industry will at some point seek a return on their investment, and it will be interesting to see how many of today’s ‘free’ services continue to be free at that point.
Nor can the ad-funded model support all the media that are currently fighting for survival. The ad-funded model will self-select survivors largely on the basis of appropriateness to brand sponsors, who are notoriously cautious. That is a very worrying outcome.
Both Arrington and Keen are right about one thing – newspapers need to embrace digital delivery of news and take this opportunity to reduce the overheads required by a clunky, paper-based delivery mechanism. And then they need to support a move towards a world where people can pay for what they use, meaning the sources of media funding remain as diverse and wide-ranging as the tastes of the readers themselves.