Eugene Robinson on Globe struggle: I wish I had an answer

5 05 2009

Eugene Robinson identifies the problem, wishes for an answer:

Times management may have been clumsy, inept or unfair in its handling of the Globe, but the paper’s New York “overlords” didn’t cause the crisis that is ravaging the entire newspaper industry. In brief: Circulation is declining slowly; advertising revenue has fallen off a cliff; the Internet hasn’t yet yielded a business model that can support amply staffed newsrooms.

We have gone through other periods when great newspapers succumbed to new economic realities. Most American cities once had three, four or more competing dailies; now, most are down to just one. But those earlier rounds of attrition were exercises in survival of the fittest. The difference now is that newspapers are in trouble no matter how fit they are. …

I don’t believe this is the death knell for newspapers, even the old-fashioned, ink-on-paper kind. I do believe that someday, somehow, the industry will find enough revenue in electronic distribution to pay for the kind of journalism our democracy needs. If I had the definitive solution, I’d shout it from the mountaintops — maybe after patenting it first.

What I do know is that smart, prudent management can buy precious time to figure this all out. Doomsday threats don’t help.

How about a radical solution? What if all newspapers replaced their free Web sites with a micro-payment model? To succeed, in my view, nearly all major newspapers would have to implement it at approximately the same time, or else readers would continue to find the free sites.

Some may complain of price-fixing, but I don’t think that would apply when the starting price is zero. There is no need for all newspapers to charge the same price per article, which market forces could determine, but I think it would be necessary for all outlets to begin charging something.

Front pages would still be free, with headlines and blurbs teasing fuller stories. Readers would set up a master account, and each time they clicked a story for a fuller version, their account would be charged a payment of a few cents. It’s worth a try.

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