Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fighting the Future of News: The Uselessness of 'Should'

Imagine for a moment that you've become either the boss, the parent or the Supreme Deity of every news consumer in America.

Take a moment. Drink it in. Feel the power.

Now you can begin to pronounce:

* You should buy newspapers because they provide an indispensable service to a free society.

* You should get your news on paper because: A, that's the way we've always done it; B, we have the existing infrastructure and employees to print and distribute news and need cash to support both; and C, that's still how we get most of our ad revenue.

* Even if you read news online, you should pay for every bit of it because otherwise: A, we'll all lose our jobs; B, if A happens, you won't know anything about what's going on in the world; and C, because online ad revenue just doesn't cut it.

Ah, didn't that feel good? Now take a deep breath, and let it go.

The truth is that no one in the newsgathering business has the slightest say over what any individual news consumer does with his or her time or money. Once, perhaps, the first pronouncement might have held some sway, but these days, the moral authority of the mainstream news media has been severely eroded in the minds of much of the public, so I wouldn't count on that one to save anybody's bacon.

Spending even a nanosecond thinking about what people "should" do is a waste. All that matters is what people will do or won't do, and that comes down to basic human nature.

Now, I'm no psychologist or sociologist, but I am a human, and I do know what I will and won't do (your results may vary).

* I generally won't pay for stuff if I can get it for free (unless the free stuff is junk, or I'm staring over the donation jar at a very sympathetic museum guide who has those big puppy eyes -- or one who just scares me into dropping in a couple of bucks).

* If forced to pay for stuff I used to get for free, I will, in the majority of cases (and especially in the current economy), learn to live without said stuff, unless: A, it's extremely good stuff (in which case, one wonders why it was ever free); B, it's stuff that has become integral to my daily life; or C, I suddenly get a big influx of ready money.

There are moments where I, like most other human beings, will fork over for otherwise free stuff out of the goodness of my heart, a desire to earn points in heaven or to impress someone else. But counting on that happening is not a very good business model.

So tossing all of this useless "should" stuff over the side, I'm left with two bedrock reasons why people will pay for news:

*They'll buy news on paper if it's cost-effective, easy, and that paper contains information they can't easily get anywhere else or that is superior to similar information they can get for free (a quality neighborhood newspaper vs. a pennysaver, for instance).

* They'll pay for news online if they can't get it for free, if it's relevant and integral to their daily lives, and if it's superior to blogs that they can get for free.

If all the news that flows into my Google Reader on a daily basis for free suddenly dried up, to be honest, I'd just do without most of it.

(Look at the cable TV model for a minute -- some folks are starting to drop cable, because they can get some of the shows online, and network shows are available in HD over the air for the price of an antenna. Cable has been vigorously fighting to keep its top shows off the Internet, but in the end, it's probably a losing battle. Pressed for cash, many people are deciding that whatever they get online is good enough, and whatever extra shows or information cable provides is not worth the expense. And since cable -- and newspapers -- live in a bundling world instead of an a la carte or on demand world, it's something to ponder.)

But I would probably pay for a couple of sites that I felt offered the best and most comprehensive coverage of the news I cared about the most. Then, as time went on, I'd probably feel I was missing out and might add a couple more. Or I might not. Depends on the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis.

I'm a journalist. My continued employment is connected to the future of news, whether on paper or online. I understand all the economic arguments (my paycheck depends on them). I love news. I consume news in one way or another during the majority of my waking hours. But I only have so much time, so much money and so much attention to spread around.

People want what they want, when they want it, the way they want it. That's a sea change in the attitude of consumers, birthed and encouraged by digital distribution. The horse has not only left the barn, he's out the gate, down the road and grazing in the neighbor's pasture (who leaves his gate open -- how nice for our horse!).

The newsgathering infrastructure does (or, at least, is supposed to) provide an indispensable service to a free society. It should survive and thrive.

But that doesn't mean it will, and hope is not a strategy.

Click here for a fascinating, recent study on the attitudes toward news.

Click here for weekly conversations on the future of news from the Newseum.

Click here for a recent PBS special on the future of news.

Click here for the spring 2010 edition of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is dedicated to the future of news (and look, is available for free online!)

Of course, journalists could also just become wards of the state. Or not. Or really, really not.