What's It Worth To Ya?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009 10:16 AM

How much would you pay to read this column every day?

A penny? A nickel? Nothing at all?

What about the cornucopia of content offered up on washingtonpost.com? Would you cough up, say, a dollar a month?

When I hold my online chats, some people invariably say they would happily contribute something to the site. But the embedded culture of the Net is that everything should be free -- and if it's not, most people will click their way to similar fare elsewhere.

The question is more than academic; many folks believe the future of the newspaper industry rides on the answer.

The Tribune Co. and Minneapolis Star Tribune are bankrupt. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer faces a shutdown if it can't find a buyer. Layoffs have become commonplace and newspapers are killing separate sections (the metro sections at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Book World and Sunday Source at The Washington Post). The Wall Street Journal laid off 14 yesterday and is closing its fashion and retail group.

The problems are far-ranging, but a key one is that newspapers are selling a print product (whose advertising supports sizable reporting staffs) while giving away the paper online (where ad revenue is anemic by comparison).

I happen to believe that quality journalism is worth paying for, but past experiments haven't been encouraging. Slate and Salon both dropped subscription fees, and the New York Times abandoned a two-year plan to charge for access to its columnists. Only the Wall Street Journal has turned its Web site into a paying business.

Too many young people believe that news and information are fungible -- that is, if they don't get it from NYT or WP or LAT they can just get their fill through Google, AOL or Yahoo. They don't seem to realize, or care, that it takes a cadre of real journalists to dig into the questionable doings of government and business -- and this is particularly true of local papers that patrol their turf. But the old business model is collapsing, and if a new one doesn't emerge to replace it, serious journalism will undoubtedly shrivel.

Time tackles the issue in its cover story, with its former managing editor Walter Isaacson making a plea for pennies:

"Newspapers have more readers than ever. Their content, as well as that of newsmagazines and other producers of traditional journalism, is more popular than ever -- even (in fact, especially) among young people.

"The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news. According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: ore people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines. Who can blame them? Even an old print junkie like me has quit subscribing to the New York Times, because if it doesn't see fit to charge for its content, I'd feel like a fool paying for it. . . .

"I am hoping that this year will see the dawn of a bold, old idea that will provide yet another option that some news organizations might choose: getting paid by users for the services they provide and the journalism they produce. This notion of charging for content is an old idea not simply because newspapers and magazines have been doing it for more than four centuries. It's also something they used to do at the dawn of the online era, in the early 1990s . . .

"The bulk of the ad dollars has ended up flowing to groups that did not actually create much content but instead piggybacked on it: search engines, portals and some aggregators."

In the Philadelphia Daily News, Stu Bykofsky puts it more colorfully:

"We must stop the insanity . . .

"This company should charge online visitors a small fee, maybe $5 a month, for our content -- which is copyrighted, then sue the pants off anyone stealing it.

"Should Google 'pick up' (steal) our stuff, if we successfully sued them for $1 billion, two good things happen: 1) Our money problems are solved; 2) everyone else will stop stealing our content."

There's a parallel debate over whether a big newspaper should turn nonprofit and seek a big endowment. I am profoundly skeptical, but David Swensen and Michael Schmidt float the idea in the NYT and former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll does so in the New Yorker. Slate's Jack Shafer raises the obvious question: Who would be in charge?

"Missing from the nonprofit debate is any mention of why enough paying customers can't be found to support these news-gathering institutions. . . . The implication seems to be that political coverage, foreign dispatches, and investigative work are inherently noncommercial . . .

"Even if someone did establish a foundation-funded, nonprofit newsroom as large as the Times' or the Post's, I'd still have misgivings about it. Who would appoint the directors of the foundation? To whom would the foundation be accountable? To whom would the editors and reporters ultimately report -- the foundation directors or the readers? Under the current arrangement, you can blame the Graham family if you dislike the Post, the Ochs-Sulzbergers if you're peeved about the Times, Sam Zell if you hate the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune, or genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch if the Wall Street Journal lets you down.

"But if the Foundation Times or Foundation Post irks you, whom do you yell at? Let's suppose Coll persuades Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others to endow a quality newsroom per his $2 billion plan. I'd trust Coll to run such a foundation and pick directors who in turn would pick the editors who picked the reporters. All would be good for a year or two, but as foundation sleuth Martin Morse Wooster demonstrates in his 2007 book, The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of 'Donor Intent,' foundations have a tendency to deviate from the principles of their founders."

At Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias says we just ain't worth it:

"When I worked at primarily journalistic institutions, one of the most aggravating aspects of my job was the need to deal with the self-righteousness of journalists about their work.

"And beyond the fact that the Post does not, in practice, attract the kind of warm and fuzzy sentiments that newspaper nostalgics think it deserves to, it just wouldn't make any sense to offer a $2 billion gift to an outfit like the Post for the simple reason that the vast majority of the Post's activities aren't the sort of hard news reporting for which there's a need for a stepped-up non-profit sector. The world is not currently lacking for sports coverage. Nor is there some kind of critical shortfall in people offering opinions about politics. Business reporting actually seems to have a viable economic model behind it. Similarly, lifestyle journalism continues to be viable in a number of formats. And Warren Buffett doesn't need to spend $2 billion so that people can find movie recommendations somewhere."

I guess we'll have to stick with the old-fashioned method: selling the product.

On the stimulus battle, the media have belatedly realized that the GOP has seized the upper hand in framing the debate. Of course, they passed years of pork-encrusted, earmark-laden bills in the Bush years, but now they've suddenly rediscovered fiscal restraint -- with the help of Dems who hung too many ornaments on the legislative tree. This enables National Review to devote its home page to 50 examples of "Various Left-Wingery": "$50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts; $4.2 billion for "neighborhood stabilization activities"; $650 million for digital TV coupons; $88 million to help the Public Health Service move into a new building next year."

The Senate is doing what it used to do when the Republican House would ram through legislation that Democrats couldn't stand: exerting a moderating influence.

"A bipartisan group of senators worked furiously in backroom negotiations on Thursday to cut the cost of the roughly $900 billion economic stimulus plan. Senate Democratic leaders said they would await the outcome of those talks before calling for a final vote on the measure, perhaps on Friday," the NYT reports.

Susan Collins, Ben Nelson and company have got $90 billion in cuts so far.

"Democrats have all but abandoned his other goal of passing the bill with broad bipartisan support," says the LAT. "Obama's personal and political prestige are on the line because he has been deeply involved in lobbying reluctant senators and trying to reach across the aisle to Republicans. He showed a flash of impatience and underscored the urgency of the need to act Thursday morning, saying: 'The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.' "

Obama comes off the post-partisan pedestal with a WP op-ed hitting "misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems." But the Post editorial board isn't buying the package.

"At this crucial juncture in the push to pass an economic recovery package, President Obama finds himself in the most unlikely of places: He is losing the message war," Politico declares.

"Despite Obama's sky high personal approval ratings, polls show support has declined for his stimulus bill since Republicans and their conservative talk-radio allies began railing against what they labeled as pork barrel spending within it. The sheer size of it -- hovering at about $900 billion -- has prompted more protests that are now causing some moderate and conservative Democrats to flinch and, worse, hesitate. The anxiety over lost momentum seemed almost palpable this week as the president in television interviews voiced frustration with his White House's progress and the way his recovery program was being demonized as a Democratic spending frenzy."

Slate's John Dickerson reports on the new zeitgeist:

"Once upon a time, the question about the stimulus package was how many Republican votes it could get in the Senate. The political dynamic has since changed. Last week, when House Republicans voted in unison against the bill, the White House and Democrats said it was a rank act of partisanship. But now that Senate Democrats are voicing their concerns, it undermines that line of attack. More than just partisan Republicans have qualms with the bill.

"Many Senate Democrats claim that the bill has too many provisions that don't meet the definition of 'timely, targeted, and temporary.' This irritates their House colleagues, in part because it echoes a line House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once used against Republicans in a previous stimulus debate and in part because it echoes the spin Republicans are using against this stimulus bill. Republicans hope to define the bill by its smallest and most absurd provisions even if they are a tiny fraction of its cost."

The former community organizer should take to the streets, says Josh Marshall:

"10 or 15 thousand people are losing their jobs every day at the moment. Half a million people a month. It would not be hard to find -- and I can't believe they're not thinking about it already -- lots of communities around the country where some version of this bill would provide critical, immediate and sustained relief to lots of people . . .

"When political battles are entirely bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue, back and forths between the White House and the Hill, presidents can become just one player among many, cut off from their real source of power. And the whole nature of the debates can get rapidly disconnected from the realities actually people are experiencing in the country."

But Bill Kristol is emboldened by a Rasmussen poll showing a 43-37 rejection of the stimulus package:

"The longer the plan sits out there, the more support sags. GOP leaders should start insisting the plan not be rushed through before the one week Presidents' Day recess . . .

"I now think, for the first time, there's an outside possibility the plan as presently constructed could collapse -- allowing for passage in late February or early March of something far more like the GOP alternative of tax cuts and some targeted spending."

Old-timers may recall that Kristol, in his pre-punditry days, helped the GOP kill Hillarycare.

On the nomination front, here we go again:

"Labor Secretary-designate Hilda L. Solis on Thursday became the fourth senior administration nominee in a month to see their Senate confirmation slowed or scuttled over problems with their taxes," the Washington Times says.

"A Senate committee abruptly canceled a confirmation vote on Ms. Solis after news reports that her husband, Sam Sayyad, had 15 outstanding state and county tax liens placed on his Los Angeles auto repair shop.

"The White House said that Mr. Sayyad and his wife were unaware of the liens and that Mr. Sayyad had paid the county $6,400 on Wednesday to settle the debt."

Unaware?

Finally, London's Daily Mail on the latest in divorces:

"A wife discovered her 12-year marriage was over after her husband posted a message on Facebook.

"Emma Brady, 39, only learned of the posting when her best friend living in Denmark telephoned to see if she was alright. The message read: 'Neil Brady has ended his marriage to Emma Brady.' "

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