One of the reasons I chose the sobriquet "Recovering Journalist" is because I long ago got over the idea that journalism is some sort of a mystical, romantic calling, somehow exempt from the laws of nature, physics and economics. Indeed, supporting successful journalism is a business, and those that ignore or fail to understand that eventually will find themselves out of business.
The sheer, delirious, lip-smacking glee that is being exuded by various commentators over the demise of The New York Time's TimesSelect is proof that a lot of people still don't really understand this. They're still living the dream that journalism somehow happens by magic, and that attaching revenue and other business principles to it (ooh, profit!) is somehow dirty. Alternatively, some of these people are just freeloaders, who simply don't want to pay for anything on the Web and still believe that old canard that "content wants to be free." Yeah, right.
Look, there's no question that the "open Web" is a good thing, and that anything that encourages more site traffic is beneficial. That's great. No doubt dropping TimesSelect—which as I said earlier this week was misguided in its focus on columnists—will make Times content more visible in search engines, bring more traffic to Times columnists and involve said columnists more in the ongoing conversations about big events of our time. All good.
But committing good journalism is expensive, and so far, there's no indication that advertising will pay the entire way, especially for premium content from the likes of organizations like the Times. By dropping TimesSelect, the Times is walking away from more than $10 million in annual revenue, and it remains to be seen how quickly the resulting traffic bump—and attendant advertising—can make that up. A blanket statement that "content is now and forever free," as Jeff Jarvis put it in his triumphant posting is just misguided—and belied by ESPN.com, ConsumerReports.org and Zagat.com, not to mention countless high-end subscription-based information and analysis services that serve professional markets. Oh, and print media are still successfully enjoying arevenue stream from subscriptions, you may have noticed.
Analysts with more thoughtful takes on the subject believe, as do I, that publishers, offline and online, need to continue to look at non-advertising alternatives—including subscriptions. Far from the Times decision signifying that the debate over paid content is dead, I think we're only at the beginning of this argument, as we are with so many issues in online media. Over the next few years, I think we'll see the emergence of many new business models. This is hardly a mature medium.
Meantime, the restless villagers, feeling their oats over the death of TimesSelect, have taken their pitchforks and torches and "free, free, free" chants over to the Dow Jones castle. It will be interesting to see how that plays out, given that there already are obvious divisions between DJ execs and new boss Rupert Murdoch over charging for WSJ.com. Again, it's not clear why, in an era when newspapers are chasing every dollar, Dow Jones would willfully walk away from $50 million-plus in annual revenue. Oh, and note that subscribers spend considerably more time with WSJ.com—and its ads—than random one-time visitors from search engines. And that WSJ.com can charge higher rates because it knows the demographics of its subscriber base. These are the kinds of subtleties that you need to understand in evaluating business strategies rather than making knee-jerk decisions because you somehow think journalism is different than other businesses.
At an online media conference a couple years ago, I heard Jarvis, no less, wonder aloud, "Does everything have to have a business model?" Well, yes, it does—otherwise, it's just a hobby. Creating good journalism requires a sophisticated business model, with revenue from multple sources—including, in some cases, paid subscriptions.