Why spend the money to buy a cow when you get your milk for free?
You could call that the prevailing question of modern Internet journalism and, more particularly, the print media.
As the Internet developed, the media was quick to jump onboard, often taking all of the information it used to sell and giving it away. Executives were keen to show growth in their traffic numbers, without ever wondering whether the new access would erode their traditional products — and their traditional revenue streams.
After all, it costs money to cover the news — you have to have a team of reporters, photographers, editors and desk staff, and you have to get them to where the news is happening.
As well, you still have all the traditional underpinnings, say, of the newspaper business — classified ad sales people, accounting and financial staff, and on and on.
But if you were an apple grower — caring for trees, pruning them, nurturing apples and harvesting and delivering them — even if you grew the best apples in the world, you wouldn’t stay in business long if you simply gave your apples away to anyone who wanted to walk in and take them.
There’s a similar problem with books and music, the difference being that while music, and books to a lesser degree, were being pirated, news agencies were simply choosing to give their apples away. It’s created an interesting culture, one where there are plenty of people who argue that “content” should just be freely available — you shouldn’t have to pay for what you choose to read or listen to.
But there is a fundamental problem with that idea: it costs money — and time — to write and produce a song, a book and a newspaper.
And if no one is willing to pay, eventually no one will be willing to write. Media companies will not be able to afford to continue operating. (And that, I think, is a model that both suits message-controlling governments and damages democracy. You cannot make an intelligent choice on a ballot if you have no idea what you are voting for, or against.)
Some would argue that breaking the essential corporate monopoly on the press is a good thing — that opening up discussion to the most possible voices is the best model. But if you were sick, would you go to the doctor or would you ask 25 friends what they thought you should do to cure the problem?
The media actually has a significant amount of skill and experience — and invests a critical amount of money in finding and tracking down stories.
That pool of money is shrinking, and reductions are flowing right down to the people who make the product.
You can argue that bloggers and other new-form media can take up the slack — but the truth is that the vast majority of bloggers consume traditional media, digest it and spit out their own analysis. In the absence of traditional journalism, they’d have precious little to work with.
And traditional journalism is an ever-more precarious business — because, as a livelihood, it’s moving backwards.
For example, I used to do a fair amount of magazine writing, but I do far less now, because in many cases freelance magazine rates are lower now than when I started in journalism in 1984. It’s not worthwhile to spend the time and the effort to make less than minimum wage. That’s not stubbornness on my part, it’s just a fact.
Several newspapers are trying to turn back the clock — installing paywalls and trying to convince customers that the news actually has a commercial value — but it is an uphill battle.
Why? Because for the last few years, by giving away our product, we have essentially made the argument that what we had been selling had no value.
The Toronto Star is the latest Canadian media outlet to give paywalls a try, saying that they will limit access to the news for non-subscribers. The reaction was quick and angry: of the first 400 web comments on the news story announcing the change, nine out of 10 were opposed.
The reaction, I suppose, is only to be expected. How can you charge for something that you’ve implicitly agreed is worth nothing?
It’s funny, because at the same time we were basically asserting that our product was worth nothing, the cable and telephone companies that pipe it though the Internet were — and are — making windfall profits simply for providing the pipe our information travels through.
There are, however, some outlets for whom the move makes perfect sense. The CBC is tailor-made to use as many possible platforms as exist, because every reader, viewer and listener counts.
And if you move someone to go from the radio to the Internet, it actually helps. The CBC’s website has advertising, while its radio broadcasts do not. (On just one story about a winter storm in Toronto, for example, there were ads for Dell computers, Safeway grocery stores and Telus cellular service. Big, meaty customers.)
For the Mother Corp., the web is found money, even if it would never be enough to sustain the CBC’s operations should its federal funding dry up. It’s unlikely to have to play the paywall game, and that will help it in numbers if nothing else.
It’s not so straightforward for the private sector.
This may sound like a pessimistic argument from someone who works in what was — for years — among the most profitable of businesses. And it is pessimistic.
It’s also pragmatic.
You get what you pay for — and if you pay nothing for it, eventually that is exactly what you will get.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.