The Free News Debate
A piece by the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette's been floating around the Internet for a bit and recently popped up at the Wall Street Journal. In it, Walter E. Hussman Jr. continues the rather tired argument that successful online news sites will find a way to put up a wall around content as his does (thereby suffering only a circulation decline of 0.4 percent daily and 1 percent Sunday).
His comparison is the Columbus Dispatch, which opened its site.
I've grown kind of tired of this debate, and of the rather untidy comparisons made by people like Hussman, but Howard Owens has an excellent, reasoned post once again explaining why Hussman has some of it right, but a lot of it wrong.
Joe Wilkert also weighs in (his emphasis):
Yes, we all know that the subscriber model was a lot more lucrative to the newspapers than the freeloading website visitor model. I'm pretty sure that if someone could have prevented the combustion engine and automobile industries from launching, the horse transportation industry would have remained lucrative as well. That didn't happen though, and like the blacksmiths of many years ago, the newspaper industry needs to acknowledge reality and move on.
Wilkert makes a point I have -- had newspapers not generally gone free, alternatives would have sprung up and eventually knitted themselves into viable alternative newsgathering (and potentially profit-making) organizations.
Mark Hamilton also has some thoughts (and promises more in subsequent posts):
The basic idea I have is that the logic that says newspapers made a mistake when they first jumped on to the web and gave their stuff away is flawed and ignores the reality of the net. Regardless of what they had done, I suspect, free would have emerged as the underlying reality of web-based journalism. And if that logic is flawed, the idea that the genie can be put back in the bottle and widespread subscriptions services can emerge is flawed, too.
Hamilton also notes a bit of irony that newspaper publishers who argue that they need protection have been perfectly happy to piggyback and take their value from the subsidized Internet and what it has spawned (think all the free blogging and video sharing sites along with open-source software).