Stop blaming me for killing your newspaper

Apparently, there are a lot of newspaper and magazine websites practicing something they blame bloggers of doing – “echo-chamber” posting – the notion that newspapers can be saved if readers weren’t free-loaders who wanted to read articles without paying anything for that privilege. Here’s a sampling of such relay drum-beating:

*The notion that newspapers should become financially endowed institutions was published a few days ago in the New York Times. (My response.)

*Buried in this Q&A with Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, is the suggestion that the NYTimes is considering once-again putting some of its content behind a pay-wall in the future.

*Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky tees-off on free-lunch readers and says they should start paying $5 a month to read the Daily News online — and, oh yeah, newspapers should get $1 billion from Google.

*Former Time magazine managing editor Walter Issacson writes at Time.com that newspapers should revisit the idea of micro-payments that might replicate the iTunes model. Pay, say, a nickle per story you want to read. (He’s riffing on the idea floated by David Carr of the New York Times last month.)

Walter Issacson is brilliant and is someone I highly respect as a writer. His biographies of Einstein and Franklin are two of the finest books I’ve read in the past decade. But this essay sounds like it was written in 1997, not 2009. Geez, the micro-payment debate. It’s the one where graphic designer (that was a joke) Jakob Neilsen argues for and Clay Shirky argues against.

I’m going to be posting more on this topic in the future, but today, I wanted to respond to the one thing that offends me most with all of these “people need to pay for newspaper content” rants: They are blaming me, the reader, for the demise of newspapers. They’re suggesting that my free-loading is why their product is failing.

That’s crazy. The failure of the newspaper business rests solely on the shoulders of those who have run the newspaper business, not mine.

Suggesting it’s the fault of free-loading readers is like suggesting that the sub-prime melt-down was caused soley by the people who were issued mortgages they clearly could not afford. Suggesting it’s the readers’ fault is (to continue the metaphor) like saying we could fix the economy simply by going to those people and charging them a higher interest rate on the houses they can’t afford.

What these “how to fix newspapers” arguments leave out are all the investment bankers, hedge funds, institutional investors, asleep-at-the-wheel regulators, roll-up specialists, corporate-raiders, attorneys, consulting firms, law-makers, hubris-laden CEOs and a list of others who are responsible for the demise of newspapers.

In short, the same folks (investment bankers & friends and the corporate CEOs who love flying in private jets) who were sellers of the bill of goods that resulted in the sub-prime debacle have, for the past three decades, been rolling up sub-prime newspapers and calling it chicken salad. And all the while, these executives and bankers were destroying the Golden Goose of local newspapers: the local. They sold investors on the myth that bigger was better and more synergistic. They sold investors on the myth that national advertising could be sold when you have a national chain of newspapers. They sold investors the myth that customers will buy a local newspaper because it contains national news.

And now they want to blame me. No way.

In a later post, I’ll list lots of content I’m happy to pay for, and already do, from newspapers and other providers.

And in yet another post, I will wonder aloud if newspapers could find a new revenue source by demanding a large cut of the book and appearance fees certain columnists receive in exchange for the newspapers’ long-term underwriting of the marketing that raises the visibility of the columnists’ “brands.”

Bonus: Doc Searls has a solution (via comment below). It’s being developed as part of his VRM project at Harvard and is called PayChoice:

“The idea is to build a new marketplace for media — one where supply and demand can relate, converse and transact business on mutually beneficial terms, rather than only on terms provided by thousands of different silo’d systems, each serving to hold the customer captive.PayChoice is a breed of VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management. VRM is the reciprocal of CRM or Customer Relationship Management. VRM provides customers with tools for engaging with vendors in ways that work for both parties. PayChoice is one of those tools. Or a set of them.