Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

What Are Readers Worth?

Paul Farhi, a reporter who covers the media for The Washington Post, has an article in the American Journalism Review arguing that papers should basically kill off their online editions and retreat to a print-only model. Obviously, I'm not a big fan of that conclusion, given the fact that I'm a paid employee of a newspaper's Web site. But putting my interests aside, this gets to one of the odder conflicts in journalism: Farhi is saying that the media should make a decision to inform fewer people. To do its job -- if you understand its job as providing news rather making profits -- worse.

His conclusion is an understandable one: If newspapers don't discover a viable revenue stream soon, they're not going to be able to do any job at all. But so long as we're in the realm of radical ideas that are unlikely to happen -- and closing down Web sites definitely fits that description -- it seems weird to focus on ideas that would mean fewer, rather than more, people reading the news. Why not go toward public funding? An NIH-style grants process? Something that allows newspapers to retain the huge audiences they've developed on their Web sites? The audiences that have made them better read than at any point in history?

Rarely do these discussions place much independent value on the existence and retention of these readers. If they can be monetized, then great. If not, then they're seen, almost angrily, as the cause of the problem, and keeping them around isn't prized on its own terms. Which is exactly the sort of thinking that leads me to ideas like public subsidies for newspapers: When the business concerns are so overwhelming that the actual reach of the news ceases to be a first-order concern, something is askew. If broadly accessible news sources can be supported by profits, that's great. If not, then maybe the problem isn't the broadly accessible part but the idea of leaving it all up to profits.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 20, 2009; 3:07 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Chuck Grassley Gives Up The Game
Next: Obama and Smerconish


I don't understand why everything has to be for profit. Health care, news, and even higher education are making profit the goal, and not the end.

The only uses I have for print newspapers are local sales ads and bird cage liners. News in print newspapers is always a day, or at least several hours late. I see no problem in having premium news sites that are ad-free and deliver valuable independent content. Let's see the freedom of press exercized instead of being corporate-profit oriented.

Posted by: Single_Payer | August 20, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I sure agree with 'Single_Payer' above.

The most viable model for news (non-TV) should be the non-profit foundation/university model. Raise lots of endowment and try to live off the combo of interest on the endowment plus on-line ad revenues.

I would scream like heck if the public pocketbook were subsidizing The Washington Times in their partisan wingnuttery.

If they are non-profit, they can still be as partisan as their endowers will support (as long as they avoid a direct support for particular candidates for particular offices). Think of the foundation as the replacement for the public spirited mogul that threw their money at a newspaper to make his point (The old Wall Street Journal - and perhaps the new one too).

The news biz has nearly always been (until Wall Street started dictating the required profit levels of publicly held news conglomerates) a point of view vehicle at least in part. Of course, Wall Street was wrong: but they are more often wrong than right, so that's not surprising. Why would anyone want pablumized news from a detoothed conglomerate that thinks 15-20% net profits are possible from news over the long run.

The news (and advertising) from trees biz is now a loser, and Barney Frank might well ask Paul Farhi what planet he's been living on. Maybe Uranus.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 20, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

You can tell Mr. Farhi and all the fine folks wringing their hands at the Post to come see me.

From the day I was born until the day I left for college, there were not one but TWO daily papers at my doorstep everyday, because my dad loved to read the news, and he passed that love on to me. Now I'm married, I have a decent amount of leisure time, and I make a decent salary. In short, I am their ideal customer.

The only print copy of the Post that I've read in 8 years was the Obama inaugural issue. If the Post cancelled its web service, guess what I'd do? Continue to not buy the Post. Just about anyone can name a dozen websites that cover national affairs and politics well. But what the Post seems to forget is, people like me who love the news can name as many websites that do a good job of covering local city affairs, too! I hardly even bother to read the Post's Metro section at all, because I find that sites like Greater Greater Washington, PQLiving, DCist, and so on, have better reporters who provide more detailed and more intelligent coverage. If the Post can't beat the competition, then there's nothing else they can do to get me to pay for their news.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | August 20, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure why newspapers insist on printing the print version of their paper themselves and delivering it with trucks. I'm sure 99% of your readers have printers at home and could print out a short PDF version of the Washington Post that they could spill coffee on or read on the train. It could even have ads on it targeted to the exact reader who printed it out instead of the blunderbuss array of ads in the print version. The Christian Science Monitor does this and it seems promising.

Posted by: jamusco | August 20, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Killing online content in favor of print is a TERRIBLE idea, and this is coming from a die-hard veteran journalist who grew up with a deep love of print news. Despite my background, I have read nothing but online daily news for probably a decade now -- and I'm not exactly a 20- or even 30-something. If I'm not going along with the return-to-print thing, the younger readers certainly won't. Newspapers, sadly, have to find another way to generate revenues, because print alone will no longer cut it.

Posted by: sunnybeaches2 | August 20, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

"Why not go toward public funding?"

You don't know how glad I am that you were willing to at least discuss that.

I've brought that up so many times in the comments at Mark Thoma's site, I think he's ready to ban me.

The last time was from just two days ago (at:

Mark: Tell lies to scare people, then when the other side howls, count on the press turning it into a circus that is more of a series of gotchas than anything resembling a debate or a search for the truth. The press needs to take a long, hard look at it's role in destroying public debate. But it won't.
Me: Turning it into a circus is very often profit maximizing.

When will we finally talk about subsidizing the enormous positive externalities of serious investigative journalism.

You don't think a 50% or 80% tax credit for the costs of serious investigative journalism, would significantly change the equation? A credit for fact checking, for consulting with experts, some on-staff, so journalists could be sure, and so will have the courage and confidence to state lies as lies, and not write "he said, she said".

And just look, investigation is expensive; that's a big reason why, in profit maximizing, circus, horse race stuff so often wins out. Cut the costs of serious investigation by 80%, with an 80% tax credit, and you're going to see a lot more serious investigative factual pieces. The profit maximizing equation changes. The tax credit could be done based on objective accounting expenses in a very clinical way, to allay fears of the government favoring/influencing media outlets.

There are costs and problems to this, but you don't think there are costs and problems with the way things are now?

How bad will things have to get before economists spend at least some time, at least studying this?

End Quote

I recently did a JSTOR search of economics journals for media and externalities in abstract -- I found one article, and it wasn't on media externalities. Journalism and externalities in abstract yielded 0, and I've never seen this discussed in the econ blogosphere except when I've brought it up.

Posted by: Richard722 | August 20, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

...When the business concerns are so overwhelming that the actual reach of the [service in question] ceases to be a first-order concern, something is askew. ...maybe the problem isn't the broadly accessible part but the idea of leaving it all up to profits...

Excellent insight. You might consider applying it to the Democrats' troubles in the current health care reform debate.

Posted by: amileoj | August 20, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

It's an interesting proposal. It seems unlikely they would have no web presence, but I can see a day when all content under any headline would be individual-purchase-or-subscription. But then the day will come about when news orgs are forced to decide whether they will sue for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars their own customers who purchase the content and then by simple copy-and-paste make it available in full for free on their websites, blogs, etc. Do you want to be the record industry?

Posted by: michaeljamesdrew | August 21, 2009 5:25 AM | Report abuse

We actually do already have public subsidy for newspapers, in the form of libraries. That's one of the reasons why Authors Guild v. Google is so troubling to me: if we have only one library, we place in the hands of a single for-profit entity what should be spread among independent, non-profit libraries.

I think that ultimately newspapers have to embrace a four-point solution to their fiscal woes.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 21, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I like the idea of letting newspapers become nonprofit organizations that can accept donations. This model seems to work for NPR stations (which I've been donating to for years). I subscribe to the Post because I want to support it, but during the week every issue I get goes straight to the recycling bin, and I read it online instead. On weekends, I sometimes like to read the paper edition - but then I still want to go online and bookmark certain articles.

I'd much rather donate money to the Post and not waste the paper - and I'd happily donate to other papers, like the NY Times, that I don't subscribe to.

Posted by: Liz_B | August 21, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company