To an extent, consumers are already getting used to paying for content. It’s no coincidence that today the better TV shows tend to be found not on free, over-the air broadcast networks but on paid cable channels. And the New York Times, following the lead of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, will soon put some of its best content behind a pay wall. Given the dramatic decline in newspaper revenue and news quality, it’s only a matter of time before other papers follow suit.
Quality is the operative word here. While any number of news Web sites got their start posting reams of content from “citizen journalists,” college interns, pajama-clad bloggers and low-cost freelancers commissioned online, much of what they produced could not replace the reporting and writing of knowledgeable, experienced reporters and editors. Inevitably there will be fewer such journalists, but those who survive the shakeout will command ever higher salaries — salaries that only a handful of large news organizations will be able to afford.
Another bit of conventional wisdom about the Internet was that individuals would no longer have to rely on the “mainstream media” to decide what they read or viewed — that they could pick and choose their own content from a variety of specialty sites that suited their individual needs and tastes. But it turns out that many people actually value the convenience of getting a lot of their news and information from a single, trusted source. As a result, many portals, Web sites and news organizations are rushing to expand the scope of their core offerings.
Rupert Murdoch understood all this early on and has now assembled newspapers, TV networks and Web sites into a formidable media colossus. Google is also getting heavily into the content business, while Bloomberg recently picked up BusinessWeek. The recent marriages of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, Comcast and NBC-Universal, and the Economist and Congressional Quarterly all speak to the logic of consolidation.
As for HuffPost and AOL, nobody knows how things will work out — in terms of content, both have been better at producing quantity than quality. Unlike the AOL-Time Warner merger, however, this one comes when efficiencies are more obvious, the technology more developed and the potential benefits to consumers more apparent.