The Blind Leading The Blind: Should Newspapers Emulate The Music Biz?

mariasci | January 12, 2009 1:00 am

Proving that the revenue report always looks rosier from another tendril of the media-industrial complex, New York Times media critic David Carr writes today about how the newspaper industry could take a cue from iTunes. In a way, of course, he has a point: if anything’s doing worse than the music biz, it’s publishing, which has seen an intimidating amount of bankruptcies, closings, and layoffs in the past year. But this might just mean that record companies have found their new level (fingers crossed!) while papers are still going through contractions. (Or, you know, that papers always operate much closer to the margin anyway, and have to have much larger operating funds on-hand on a daily basis.)

As noted Panglossian consultant Jeff Jarvis points out, Carr’s idea that papers need to find some way to get users to pay for content sounds a lot like the NYT‘s much-maligned (and now shuttered) TimesSelect. But Carr’s overall point—that media needs to find some way to get users to think of content as something with value—is an important one. Maybe he just needs to take the comparison a little further.

iTunes was able to get people to pay for music not just by “coming up with an easy user interface and obtaining the cooperation of a broad swath of music companies,” as Carr assumes. It was able to get people to pay for music by lowering the minimum amount you could pay and get music. There were always singles, of course, but usually there were only one or two from every album; unless the song you wanted was a single from a current album that happened to be stocked by your local record store, the only way to get it instantly was to spend $18.99 on the album. iTunes made it possible instead to spend $0.99—an $18 savings, no small potatoes. To extend this to the newspaper industry would require a much smaller minimum price point, because you can get a whole paper for a dollar. Carr’s idea would seem to suggest a kind of micropayment scheme where you would pay a few cents to download content to a mobile device. This is hardly a new idea, but it’s a much different one than TimesSelect.

At the end of the day, of course, the fact that Carr is trying to learn a lesson in revenue creation from the music industry is not heartening. iTunes makes labels some money, sure, but not as much as they would need to sustain themselves at previous levels. And all signs point to a large age gap in music-purchasing habits: even with iTunes around, the youth of today seem to have been brought up with the expectation of free music. Responding to Carr’s article, media critic Dan Kennedy argues:

The one thing that won’t work — and I think Carr would acknowledge this if it were put to him directly — is the notion that newspapers as we have come to know them will somehow be able to charge for their everyday content. That horse left the barn 10 years ago, and it’s not coming back.

It remains to be seen, of course, if this is also true for the music industry. Carr points out that, for all its bloated uncoolness, old media organizations are able to do a lot of things that new media hasn’t figured out how to do yet, and those things are really important. The same can be said for major labels.

Let’s Invent an iTunes for News [NYT; HT Marc Hogan]